We Have All Seen The Fire – thoughts on an exhibition of Arab art. Arab Express, Mori Museum of Art, Tokyo,16 June-28 October 2012. By Ruth Maclean
Art is always one of the best ways of giving an insight into a nation’s, or in this case, a race’s, identity. This exhibition, sponsored by various Arab embassies, and other well-meaning organisations, attempted to do just that. From one point of view, it is both relieving and gratifying to learn that it is not just ignorant Westerners who must be educated in the ways of the Arab: clearly the Japanese need to brush up as well (although some would have it that it is impossible for non-Arabs to understand Arabs). anyway, groups of broad – minded art fans seem to have flocked to this exhibition to be informed and enlightened as to the mysteries of this much aggrieved and oft-conflicted region.
A noble mission, no doubt. I confess I went into the exhibition expecting to have to take the apologetic attitude that is essential wear for all Westerners in most of the world these days, and increasingly in our home countries. Even I, although I am young enough never to have voted for any of the national governments who committed regrettable deeds against the people of the Middle East, live in constant fear of being tarred with the brush reserved for the white man. Yet I, as many others, I suspect, have subconsciously resigned myself to this fate, and my expectations were both confirmed and confounded.
In fact I very much enjoyed the exhibition, relieved unexpectedly of my first-world guilt for most of the time. The best pieces of art were those which stood alone as art in their own right, rather than falling into the trap of becoming mere conduits for political statements or overly reliant on the ‘Arab’ context. It was this art which had standalone value, as with all art, that cut across the barriers of nation and culture to appeal to common human experience, and generated an emotional response. It is this kind of art which is positive and, in my view, fit the bill of the exhibition.
One such example was a video art installation – The House that My Father Built (once upon a time), by Sadik Kwaish Alfradi . It featured a dark silhouette of a Picasso-esque figure, bending over apparently in fatigue or sadness. This figure remained on one side of the screen the whole way through the video, while other images, animated drawings that appeared and metamorphosed, cycled in and out of being. It was deeply affecting, with scenes of a family home gradually disintegrating, among others of kites and figures. A soundtrack of melancholy strings played in the background. The whole thing was monochrome and didn’t seem to tell a particular story, but just created a general feeling of loss and decay, and sympathy for the suffering of the bending figure. It had a single sad eye, and at one point another of these eyes appeared in the middle of a palm, like an ancient Egyptian amulet.
I in fact found that elements of the audio tour and the explanatory boards took away from these works, by trying arbitrarily to shoehorn them into a trite and obvious ‘Arab’ context. A prime example is the work ‘Black Fountain’ by Maha Mustafa. a fountain of black water, spurting straight up in the middle of a perfectly bare room, and pounding down onto a concave circle of plastic stretched across a metal frame, created a noise and visual dynamism that was instantly aesthetically pleasing. Impressive too was the contrast between the black water and the white room, and the vertical trajectory of the water and the horizontal expanse of the plastic. I spent a good few minutes simply absorbing this piece before reading the information board, which was a good thing, as the paragraph provided instantly downgraded it to third-grade and facile symbolism, with, of course, the black water representing oil and evoking all the unrest this ‘black gold’ has caused in the Arab world.
I appreciate this is one interpretation, but it is both the most juvenile and least interesting one. I can look up a photo of an oil well on Google Images or go and find one in real life. This does nothing to answer the question of why the artist bothered creating the work, or what wider value it has. Of course these questions are ones I too do not have the answer to, but presenting this one-dimensional context as the only accepted interpretation of the work is not to appreciate the art in itself, but to subordinate it to a wider political agenda, that of those who propagate the myth of the aggrieved Arab, a people incapable of imagining anything else but the wrongs done to them.
In doing this, the joy of the human spirit as expressed through art is trivialised by those who seek to achieve their own political objectives by fitting it into a ‘victim’ narrative. In my view, this undermined what I understood to be the purpose of the exhibition, which is using art to promote understanding of Arab identity and culture, cutting across boundaries with evocations of common human experience. However, by adopting the fawning liberal view of the victim Arab incapable of solving their own problems, the blame for which is invariably laid at the West’s door, the exhibition’s curators only reinforced the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude which prevails in this region.
That said, most works did have all the hallmarks of good art – they were subversive, humorous and affecting. One particularly wise, funny, video (Rawane’s Song) was by a Lebanese artist, Mounira al Solh, who explained her difficulties in creating art about the war. She described how she felt she just didn’t have anything to say – as a result, she didn’t feel like a ‘typical Lebanese’. This betrays the extent to which the Lebanese identity has become so defined by war. This is perhaps inevitable, but it is a shame, and the people who can jolt nations out of this identity crisis are artists like al Solh, who help to both express and create national identity. It is they who must be bold and strike out, showing there is more to life than war. Art, after all, has nothing new to say about war – as al Solh recognises. One-sided art is boring, and what other side is there to take on war, except that we’d rather it didn’t happen? News reports are all there is – there is no point creating art after the event, because the important things are the facts on the ground, and there is nothing new to say about those, except that they are terrible. There is no point rehashing and revisiting these later in art. We are better to just move on.
Although many of the pieces in this exhibition fell into this trap, the worst offender was a video installation near the end, I think by Emily Jacir. This comprised merely clips of news channels to a soundtrack of Mozart’s Requiem. We cycled through clips of bombs on Arab cities, then the Pope saying something about Christianity. Then more bombs. In fact I didn’t stay long enough to see anymore because I didn’t feel it was worth it. The video seemed to paint a world that was black and white, where ignorant non – Arabs needed to sit and see images of bomb after bomb fall on Middle Eastern cities, all because some white guy in a hat who preached the religion they persecute was ignoring them. Yes, ok, he’s a hypocrite. We get it. Do they think we haven’t spent the last ten years watching this? Do they think we need to see anymore to understand? How is this art at all? It isn’t – it’s just another news report, like we see, day in, day out. Yes – we know our governments have done things to you. And you hate it. And we feel sorry for you. But it’s not like we don’t know that it’s going on – we don’t need artists to show us videos. We have all seen the fire. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t had free media in the Arab world until now, so they don’t know that our TV channels don’t just whitewash everything to make us look like the good guys. You only need to look at the BBC to see quite the reverse.
And it’s not black and white. Ok. The west aren’t the good guys all the time. But neither is anyone else. Regardless of where you’re standing, you’ve got to be a human being and understand that. That’s what art is. Being a human being. And trying to understand. Not just standing in your own corner, and drowning out everyone else with your righteous shouting.