The Middle East Institute (MEI), based in Washington, D.C., launched its highly-anticipated gallery for Contemporary Middle Eastern Art on September 13. Featuring socially engaged work by seventeen artists, from Morocco to Afghanistan, spanning video, painting, sculpture, installation and performance, the artists’ inspirations, from Sufi poetry to folk art and popular culture challenge stereotyped identities while celebrating cross-cultural influences, breaking down political, linguistic and religious borders.
In a town rich with galleries and institutes, the new gallery at MEI brings a different kind of diplomacy. Talking about the art with old and new friends and strangers, standing shoulder to shoulder with those of all differences, attitudes, nationalities and opinions, it is empathy for the human condition that holds us together. Talking to each other, crying together, propels discussion that unites us in a mutual search for understanding, with art leading the way.
The first work to confront me on the gallery wall were long-handled steel and wooden swords from Mahmoud Obaidi’s “Confusionism” series that formed the word “Salam” in Arabic letters. The Iraqi-Canadian artist told me that he “uses the power of the arts to transcend difference and drive social change globally.” Although Isaiah predicted the world’s people would beat these symbols of war into plowshares; here they are turned into the Arabic word for peace.
Nazareth-born Palestinian artist Sharif Waked injects dark humor into his video, “Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints,” 2013. He creates a fictional fashion show akin to those in the west where models expose stomachs, backs and legs desiring to showcase the body. But here, the exposure necessary to pass through the security checkpoint shows the humiliation experienced by the traveler, especially in a society that demands one be modestly covered.
The signature piece, “Ourouba,” translates to “Arabicity,” or the state of being Arab, as curator Rose Issa related, entitling a show that she describes as a “A Weapon of Mass Discussion.” Appropriately, Egyptian artist Fathi Hassan writes the word “Ourouba” in a kufic form of Arabic calligraphy situating himself as Egyptian, Nubian and Arab, questioning the definition of nation. Is nation a geographic, linguistic, ethnic or cultural distinction? It is this courage to question, discuss and show the realities and tensions in the Middle East that makes this new gallery, sponsored by a middle eastern think tank so important and welcome on the world scene.
Here, art uses the universal language of the image to create an immediate reaction to the horror, fear, humiliation and the beauty of people in the Middle East. The MEI gallery ventures well beyond platitudes of policy and prescriptions for peace in papers and seminars at this think tank to use a universal visual language to elicit empathy, and stimulate a thirst for knowledge and understanding, cross-cultural analysis and discussion. Its art rises above narrow nationalistic language, using what Arabicity/Ourouba Curator Rose Issa declared “the power of the arts to transcend difference and drive social change globally.”
(“Arabicity/Ourouba” is on exhibit at the Middle East Institute’s Gallery for Contemporary Middle Eastern Art, 1763 N St. NW, Washington, D.C., from September 14-November 22, 2019. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, visit https://www.mei.edu/art-gallery.)