Just when you thought the time for regional or ethnic exhibitions had come and gone, the New Museum presents this coherent, often absorbing survey of recent art from the Arab world The show’s curatorial team, all from the museum’s staff, necessarily gives us an outsider’s view, but they wisely eschew most of the usual suspects Arranged in geographic groupings, and filling the entire museum with works by 45, mostly unfamiliar artists from some 15 countries, the show feels dominated by photography and video, often documentary in nature, as if to bear the weight of the relative strangeness of the topic to an American audience
Predictably, the seemingly endless history of political strife and violence that besets the region haunts much of the work The straightforward, grainy footage of Khaled Jarrar’s video Infiltrators (2012), shows the tribulations of ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank as they attempt to traverse border crossings, both licit and not (In a piece of ugly irony, the Israeli authorities prevented Jarrar from traveling to New York to speak at the museum A solo project by the artist will open at Whitebox Art Center on the Lower East Side on July 24.) Abdul Hay Mosallam’s 1978 painting of an abstract figure with keffiyeh, rifle, one cyclopean eye, and a body formed of script makes for a symbolic, provocatively groovy portrait of Dalal Mughrabi, a female PLO fighter Mazen Kerbaj’s cartoonlike sketches recount with grim humor daily anxieties during the bombing of Beirut in the summer of 2006 The series of short videos made during the Syrian conflict of the last three years by Abounaddara, an anonymous film collective, and originally posted online, include a number of chilling subjects, none more so than a little boy calmly relating the horrors he’s witnessed.
The curator’s integrate this preponderance of more-or-less documentary material with a great deal of finesse, and expertly tease out illuminating connections between diverse works In one quite perfect gallery of Egyptian artists, for instance, slanted shelves present Anna Boghiguian’s diaristic and expressionist untitled drawings of recent life in Cairo, including several made during the revolution in 2011 Nervous lines describe crisscrossing barbed wire in a few of them, rhyming nicely with Susan Hefuna’s Cityscape Istanbul (2011), 16 contemplative and abstract ink drawings of blue and green grids on an adjacent wall, which alternately evoke Egyptian mashrabiya window grilles, skyscraper facades, city maps, and other sorts of networks A flat screen shows 2026 (2010), Maha Maamoun’s video created from black-and-white stills of a man in a knotted hammock wearing some sort of a sleep mask with electrical wires attached A clear homage to Chris Marker’s landmark experimental 1962 film La Jetée, 2026 similarly features a sci-fi narrative of time-travel, as a voiceover tells of a vision of the pyramids in a dystopian future of superrich and desperately poor—a text taken from Mahmoud Othman’s novel Revolution 2053 (2007)—that sounds uncomfortably close to the present Sharing formal correspondences, sociopolitical interests, and urban experience, the works by these three Cairene women resonate with each other in an affecting fugue greater than the sum of its parts.
Similarly the small gallery on the museum’s fifth floor holds a mini-exhibition curated by Amman-based artist Ala Younis Using the Palestinian struggle as a lens through which to examine recent Arab history as a whole, she orchestrates art and archival materials into a tour de force of odd affinities and historical eddies The objects range from curiosities such as PLO pins and children’s books from the 1970s to projects like Adel Abidin’s Three Love Songs (2010), a trio of music videos in which sultry blondes sing bombastic songs, originally commissioned by Saddam Hussein, in the style of Western pop, torch, and easy-listening music The effect is deliriously wacky, if a little sinister.
The theme of identity provides another through-line for the exhibition Armenian Egyptian commercial photographer Van Leo’s 1940s black-and-white self-portraits find him enigmatically trying on various characters, from sea captain to hunk with a gun to woman in a dress—a Cindy Sherman avant la lettre Other artistically complex works trace an assertive but equivocal version of Arab subjectivity In the performative video The Cave(Amsterdam) (2005), Egyptian artist Wael Shawky recites a chapter from the Koran while staring intensely at the camera and stalking the aisles of a European supermarket The culture clash and displacement of contexts registers as simultaneously comic, disconcerting, and intriguingly weird A striking young woman in Beirut-based Marwa Arsanios’s Have You Ever Killed a Bear? Or Becoming Jamila (2013 – 14), tries to locate herself in relation to an acting role as Algerian revolutionary Djamila Bouhired, the subject of two vintage cinematic portrayals The video unfolds as an allusive, metafictional narrative that touches upon the malleability of identity, the morality of war, and, obliquely, on the declining agency of women in Arab political life Like the most compelling works here, Arsanios’s frames urgent concerns with a glancing poetry.—Joseph R. Wolin