The New Museum’s summer survey show is many things. At times dizzyingly provocative, bombastic and perplexing, it also verges on the overwhelming. Focusing on the contemporary Arab world and beyond, the exhibition’s curators, among them Massimiliano Gioni, aim at reconsidering a region synonymous in the popular imagination with political strife and perpetual uprising. What the show is not is cohesive. Nor does it succeed in identifying what exactly the ‘Arab world’ is that the show sets out to present. And yet, paradoxically, the disparate nature of the exhibition and the resulting eschewal of a unifying narrative is exactly the curatorial aim of Here and Elsewhere.
If there is a leitmotif to be found underlying the show, beyond recurrent depictions of violence, persecution, geopolitics and war, it’s one of personal dislocation, both in a physical and cultural sense. As with Moroccan-born Bouchra Khalili’s eight-screen video installation, The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11), such themes come across in the narratives of migration. While Khalili films the hands of immigrants retracing their travels across the surface of a map, voiceovers recall harrowing, often epically circuitous journeys begun in equal measure out of hope and desperation.
In the 151 watercolours and the single-channel video installation that comprise UAE-based artist Abdullah Al Saadi’s series Camar Cande’s Journey (2010–11), fraught migration is replaced with wistful wayfaring. Al Saadi’s naive watercolour landscapes, painted during a 20-day sojourn across the northern UAE by foot, are meditative reflections upon territory at a time when borders are cause for bloodshed.
Ramallah-based artist Wafa Hourani revisits the exodus of Palestinian Arabs in 1948 and their subsequent dispersion along the West Bank in 1949. In his large-scale installation Qalandia 2087 (2009), Hourani recreates a detailed miniature replica of the titular refugee city, imagined a hundred years after the First Intifada, in 1987. For Hourani, the fate of Palestinians, real or otherwise, is to be found in the very architecture of their displacement. If Hourani focuses upon the world within the walls of refugee settlements, Khaled Jarrar’s documentary film, Infiltrators (2012), follows Palestinians as they look to move beyond them. Recording multiple attempts to breach the network of walls and barricades separating Israel from the occupied West Bank, Jarrar’s film bears witness to the fraught, often futile forays Palestinians embark upon in pursuit of the most basic necessities.
For other artists in the exhibition, a more intimate dislocation arises out of the conflict between identity and cultural imposition. The 12 black-and-white self-portraits of Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo, reprinted from their 1947 originals, depict the artist secretly experimenting with themes of drag and sexuality, while the black-and-white photographs of Lebanese artist Hashem El Madani, as with Tarho and el Masri, Studio Shehrazade, Sa.da, Lebanon (1958), capture two men in a posed embrace, a byproduct of the strict prohibition banning displays of affection between members of the opposite sex.
Borrowing its title from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1976 film Ici et Ailleurs, a project originally intended by the director as a pro-Palestine tract that instead became an examination of the role images play in the production of history, the New Museum’s exhibition underscores the creative process of self-affirmation that can arise out of deeply felt instability. Indeed, the show’s timing could not been more prescient. With photographs of Hamas raining rockets down on Tel Aviv and broadcasts of Israeli artillery strikes in Gaza, Here and Elsewhere reminds us that, in the fog of war, art can be a guiding light.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue