/ RE: Orient
Investigating modernism in the Arab world 1950s - 70s 

Kadhim Hayer Ten Fatigued Horses Converse with Nothing, The Martyr’s Epic, 1965. Oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation.
Curator: Mandy Merzaban
Dates: 11 March - 22 November 2013
Location: Maraya Art Centre
Publication: Salwa Mikdadi, Sarah Rogers, Valerie Behiery, Patrick Kane and Dia Azzawi

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In Barjeel Art Foundation’s first exhibition featuring pieces from its early to mid 20th century collection, Re: Orient highlighted the work of artists within a key period of artistic output in the Arab world. In the lead up to and following the decolonisation of Arab states, the 1950s to 1970s marked a pivotal period of cultural renewal, production, theorisation and resistance amidst the rise of nationalist aspirations.

The transition to independence also gave way to other forms of political domination and division, with the rise of Pan-Arab movements such as Nasserism, steered by the populist rhetoric of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and secular nationalist Ba’ath parties in Iraq and Syria. Coupled with sectarian violence, revolutions and war, this timeline is loosely bracketed on one end by Egypt’s 1952 revolution and the 1956 nationalisation of the Suez Canal. It then moves through Syria and Egypt’s short-lived union as the United Arab Republic in 1958, the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, and closes on the cusp of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). This pivotal period saw the organisation of artist collectives, associations and the introduction of numerous stylistic movements, activist manifestos and collaborations with poets and writers. Many artists travelled to art schools and ateliers within the region including Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond, as well as Europe, Asia and North America. Cross-referencing distinct modernist styles with an awakened and informed sense of cultural identity, artists of this foundational period asserted aesthetic autonomy with an acute awareness of history, philosophy and subjectivity.  

The Barjeel artworks punctuating this 30-year period highlight a fraction of this flurry of the intellectual activity that arose in the context of incredible cultural, social and political change. Re: Orient offers, within the parameters of an expanding private collection, a glimpse of the visual vernacular that developed and the subjectivities of each artist’s individual journey. It also reflects some of the shortcomings and challenges in collecting modern Arab art, including perhaps most blatantly the dearth of availability and proportional representation of female artists active at this time. More broadly, this exhibition integrates into a wider effort to reorient the discourse of modernism to proffer a more global, decentralised understanding, where more specialised research is needed.

Artists: Chafic Abboud, Ragheb Ayad, Dia Azzawi, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Nassir Choura, Hafidh Al Droubi, Ismail Fattah, Abdel Kader Guermaz, Paul Guiragossian, Khadim Hayder, Adam Henein, Naim Ismail, Saadi Al Kaabi, Louay Kayyali, Mohamed Khadda, Ismail Al Khayat, Fateh Mouderras and Ahmed Moustafa.

Dia Azzawi Mask of the Pretenders, 1966. Oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation.

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