In December, Jadaliyya's Culture page asked a variety of artists and cultural practitioners to reflect on the year in art in order to compile a list of some of the best international exhibitions of 2017. Below, they review their favorites, from an exhibition of historical Qurans in Washington D.C. to a sweeping survey of 1970s Italian television in Milan. By soliciting these short reviews we not only aim to highlight outstanding events but also hope to direct readers to art world insiders whose art, criticism, scholarship, curating, or nonprofit work is breaking new ground.
Ali Mobasser: Stamps of a Revolution
Ag Galerie, Tehran
1 – 27 September 2017
As is often the case with me, it is the stories behind exhibitions that I find most compelling, as opposed to the pieces on display themselves. This particular exhibition in Tehran really resonated with me as — the subject matter aside — I saw so many similarities between the artist and myself. While I am not particularly into stamps, I nonetheless have, throughout my life, used similar objects and media (e.g. old photographs, books, films, and heirlooms) to better understand my beloved Iranian heritage and identity.
An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad is the author of numerous books of prose and poetry dealing with Iranian culture. His writings have also appeared in such publications and media outlets as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, Forbes, The Independent, Monocle, and the BBC, among many others.
The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C.
22 October 2016 – 20 February 2017
At a time when the world’s second-most populous religion is met with both curiosity and misunderstanding by many, the Sackler Gallery’s monumental exhibit of Qurans—the first of its kind in North America—was both welcome and essential viewing. The sixty-plus Qurans on display—the majority of which were loaned from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and shown publicly outside of Turkey for the first time—spanned nearly a millennium and a vast spectrum of lands and cultures, from North Africa to Central Asia. These holy books were sensitively displayed, both as captivating works of art of incredible beauty and workmanship, and as sacred texts that embody the teachings of Islam as well as providing context about the diverse cultures in which it is practiced. In my several different visits to the exhibit, I was glad to see that it drew a diverse range of museumgoers, from practicing Muslims to clergy of other religions, to school groups and tourists.
Vanessa H. Larson is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C., who previously lived in Istanbul from 2007 to 2013. She has covered Middle Eastern visual arts, film, and culture for a variety of publications.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects
7 September 2017 – 4 March 2018
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.
[An example of the models included in The Utopian Projects. Photographed by Nada Shalaby.]
The Utopian Projects presents models of projects, some unrealized, that were created by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov since 1985. The intimate scale and intricate construction of the models makes them immediately accessible, at times magical. Walking between them, you relate to the models as objects of a collaborative process, and reflect on the context of their creation and its resonance with the current moment. Shown in the U.S. capital at this turbulent time, and steps from the faces of activists and political prisoners (Ai Weiwei’s Trace was also on exhibit at the Hirshhorn), The Utopian Projects is a reminder of the power of creativity, hope, and optimism in the face of repression.
Nada Shalaby is a visual artist currently based in New York. She works between Cairo and New York, and is a recipient of the Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists.
Alice Neel, Uptown
David Zwirner, New York CIty
23 February – 22 April 2017
I wait until the last day to see Alice Neel, Uptown at David Zwirner gallery. As I head to work in Manhattan, I wonder if I should make the trek downtown. Since the mid 1990s, when I first moved to New York, I have obsessively seen every show of hers. That afternoon I leave my meaningless job for a long lunch and take the subway to Chelsea from the Upper East Side.
Neel’s world is a heavy one, although welcoming and warm. The gallery’s rooms are full of portraits of African Americans, Puerto Ricans and Haitians, an Arab, an Iranian, other Asians, and more: New York as she experienced and saw it. These were her friends and acquaintances while living in East Harlem and the Upper West Side from the 1930s until the 1980s, ranging from her working class neighbors to members of various artistic circles and activist groups.
Neel, the most important portraitist of the twentieth century and a politically-committed artist, created work that is laden with humanity, in all its dimensions and complexities, from alienation and fatigue to determination and empowerment.
Formalistically, she presents a modernist labyrinth that is not readily comprehendible. What should not hold up works. Unresolved areas add to a sense of angst. Neel begins her paintings with line drawing, usually in blue paint, then proceeds to block areas of the composition in flat color while leaving the initial lines exposed. She then builds up some areas of the composition but not others. In the masterpiece Armando Perez, 1945 the figure’s face, neck, and tie are fully realized in her distinct expressionist and mannerist style yet all else is left almost cartoonish, though so beautiful. The many standouts of the show include: Horace Cayton, 1949, Harold Cruse, 1950, Anselmo, 1962, and Kanuthia, 1973.
Late now and must return to work, I take a cab but we encounter gridlock due to a protest against Trump’s stand on environmental issues that seems to have shut down the West Side, yet no similar outpouring is to be seen for the massacres committed by this administration thus far, whether in Syria or Iraq. The New York Times described Trump as “presidential” when he first dropped bombs on the Arab world. Mosul should never forgive us; we are monsters.
I leave the cab and walk the rest of the way across 57th Street and up Madison Avenue. New York City has become an exclusive playground for the rich, a dead city that will not produce another Alice Neel.
Athir Shayota is an Iraqi artist based in New York.
168:01 An Installation by Wafaa Bilal
Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
16 November – 31 December 2017
[Installation view of Wafaa Bilal's 168:01. Image courtesy of the Arab American National Museum.]
In addition to violent destruction, displacement, and loss of life, war and occupation bring something else—the potent destruction of culture and knowledge, a loss whose effects are long lasting and irrevocable. This November, while attending the MOVE 2017 conference, an Arab American summit in Dearborn, Michigan, I was lucky enough to take in Wafaa Bilal’s latest project 168:01. The installation responds powerfully to an episode of cultural destruction resulting from the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Plain white shelves are lined with hardbound, blank white books, representing the collection lost when looters destroyed the College of Fine Arts Library at the University of Baghdad after the invasion. They also echo the burning of the Baghdad library in the thirteenth century by the Mongol army who threw books into the Tigris, where it took seven days for the ink to run from their pages. This project takes that moment, the first minute after those 168 hours of those seven days, as the beginning of rebuilding. Bilal invites, or perhaps challenges, viewers to take action by purchasing a book from the Baghdad library’s Amazon wish list. That book replaces a white book, which the purchaser, in turn, receives as a keepsake. After the project concludes, the collection will be shipped to the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Originally exhibited at the Art Gallery of Windsor, Bilal positioned a version of it, fittingly, in the Arab American National Museum’s excellent library. In the midst of this time of bewilderment and anxiety about large political, military, and corporate forces that are dismantling civil societies in the MENA region and wreaking havoc on the lives of the vulnerable, this elegant project bridges the conceptual to the very tangible. Bilal subverts a most capitalistic action of these times, ordering stuff from Amazon, and turns it into an act of resistance, but only if the viewer is moved to act.
Lana Barkawi is executive and artistic director of Mizna, a multidisciplinary Arab arts organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota that provides a platform for Arab and Arab American film, literature, and art. Mizna publishes the literary journal Mizna: Prose, Poetry, and Art Exploring Arab America and produces the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival.
Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse
Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York City
23 September 2016 – 23 April 2017
This exhibit featured the work of designers and fiber artists Luisa Cevese, Christina Kim, and Reiko Sudo. Through their vibrant pieces, they encourage the visitor to reflect not only on material culture, but also vital aspects of sustainability and environmentalism. From fiber, to cloth, to finished pieces, I’ll keep every feature of this exhibit with me for a long while.
Detroit 67: Perspectives
Detroit Historical Museum, Detroit, Michigan
June 24, 2017 – through 2019
I also must give a nod to a favorite local institution the Detroit Historical Museum for their in-depth and thought-provoking look at the July 1967 events in Detroit. Viewers are challenged to rethink what they heard and believed about the causes, actions, and aftermath of the week of unrest. The metro Detroit community cannot stop talking about this exhibit, for very good reason.
Elizabeth Barrett Sullivan has been the curator of exhibits at the Arab American National Museum since 2009. She obtained a Masters in Museum Studies from the University of Sydney and has keen interest in Arab American fashion designers past and present.
The Words of Others: León Ferrari and Rhetoric in Times of War
REDCAT Gallery, Los Angeles
16 September – 30 December 2017
I find it extremely helpful to look at the artistic practices of the generation that lived and practiced in the 1970s and 1980s in South America under dictatorships and war. León Ferrari deploys a plethora of techniques, methods, personal and institutional archives to obsessively develop bodies of work that launch an explicit, yet not didactic critique of power, while taking an unabashedly anti-war stance.
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
15 September – 31 December 2017
Part of the PST/LALA initiative, Radical Women is a large survey of feminist work from Latin America. Besides learning about so many artists who had not been included in the canon of American art history, the works in the exhibition really pushed the boundaries of the human body: the prosthetic body, the biological body, the queer body, the racialized body, the disabled body, the mutilated body, the colonized body, and the intersections of all of those.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York
21 April – 17 September 2017
I call it a very successful exhibition when the act of walking through the gallery or museum itself—in addition to the works on view—is a unique bodily experience that I remember dearly and keep returning to. The knowledge in this exhibition was transferred through multiple sensory experiences: the hapticality of a seemingly flat surface. My senses were put to work synesthetically in the Brooklyn Museum iteration of the exhibition that is currently on view at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
The Mistake Room
7 – 26 August 2017
Analog Currency gave me a sense of community, not despite, but because it brought together practices from artists based in different parts of the world, each responding to the way information is produced and circulated under a larger colonial logic and structure.
Gelare Khoshgozaran is an Iranian, Los Angeles-based artist and writer. She is the co-founding editor of contemptorary.
But we cannot see them: Tracing a UAE art community 1988-2008
NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery
2 March – 26 August 2017
[Hassan Sharif, Cardboard and Coir (1999). Image courtesy of Estate of Hassan Sharif and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.]
Recent attempts to document and promote historical artists in the United Arab Emirates have resulted in expansive survey shows, yet curator Maya Allison’s exhibition shows the richness achievable by limiting the scope. But we cannot see them focuses on a single group of artists who worked together consistently, highlighting the dialogue between their works and the sociocultural context to which their work was addressed. In addition to works by well-known and important UAE artists Hassan Sharif and Mohamed Kazem, the exhibition features an eye-catching installation of large fiberglass jars and coir, entitled Brides of Seven Climes, by Vivek Vilasini. Particularly difficult to watch is early video footage of Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim destroying much of his work in 1999. The exhibition also hosts a reading room, which includes books and music the artists were consuming, allowing viewers to further immerse themselves in the world of the artists. But we cannot see them is an important show for Emirati and Gulf art history in its documentation of artistic practice and community between 1988-2008, but also for its attention to the richness and depth of connections between these artists’ work.
Chicago Works: Amanda Williams
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago
18 July – 31 December 2017
Trained as an architect, it is perhaps not surprising that Williams’ work speaks eloquently to urban environments. The exhibition features Color(ed) Theory, where she painted soon-to-be demolished houses in colors frequently used in marketing targeted to African-American consumers, pushing viewers to consider the links between various colors, race, and class. Chicago Works also includes a set of installations and sculptures playing with gold leaf to further push questions of value, property, and the social associations of color. Her series Chicago is Iraq? interrogates the frequent conflation of Chicago and Iraq as Chiraq, referencing Chicago’s infamous gun violence, through a series of layered laser-cut maps that superimpose the two geographies together. The exhibition is a thought-provoking reflection on the intersections of mass-mediated portrayals of value, violence, and race at a moment of deepening economic inequality and racial injustice.
Beth Derderian is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Northwestern University; her research focuses on artists working in the UAE. She holds an MA in Museum Studies and Near Eastern Studies from New York University, and worked at the Getty Center prior to attending graduate school.
TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai (TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli Watches Rai)
Fondazione Prada, Milan
9 May - 24 September 2017
[Exhibition view of TV 70. Photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti.]
This exhibition was developed by Francesco Vezzoli in collaboration with Rai, Italy’s national broadcasting company, and looked at the relationships between Italian public television and visual art, politics and entertainment, and also addressed collective narratives and memories. A highly researched and expansive exhibition, it included an impressive array of archival footage from RAI TV, plus paintings, sculptures and installations by various artists spread across the Nord and Sud galleries, the Podium, and the Cinema at Fondazione Prada in Milan.
It started with Mario Schifano’s Paesaggio TV (TV Landscape, 1970), a big wall of emulsion paintings, which led to two parallel rows of large-scale screens of TV footage of (male only) artists and writers, like Alberto Burri, Giorgio de Chirico, and Fabio Mauri, talking about their work. Another corridor, entirely in black, contained numerous small screens showing footage from RAI’s archives of TV reports from the 1970s about tragic events in Italy, including the Palestinian terrorist attack at the Rome airport in 1973, the killings of journalists in 1977, the assassination of a former prime minister in 1978, and the murder of filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. The exhibition took on a more feminine and feminist turn in the Podium, a large room covered in red velvet that featured sculptural works of fluorescent paintings on transparent plastic by Carla Accardi, Rotoli (Rolls, 1966-71) and Tenda (Tent, 1965-66). But for me, the star of the room was the cinematic wall of curtains that showed duplicated scenes from documentaries about the women’s movement, discussing gender equality and the rights to divorce and abortion.
Another predominately feminine section of the exhibition was a walk through connecting rooms featuring large-scale installations and projections of footage from entertainment and music variety shows, such as scantily clad women dancing and singing—one highlight was seeing a half-naked Grace Jones singing in the shower. The final section of the exhibition was in the Cinema, which screened a 15-minute video montage on a loop titled Rai’s Trilogy by Francesco Vezzoli, featuring his favorite TV memories from his childhood, and a tribute to pop culture and pastiche. It included intro scenes of variety shows and films directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Vittorio Taviani.
Very different to what I was exposed to through TV growing up in Dubai in the 1970s, I found the exhibition both entertaining and thought-provoking in terms of looking at the role of TV at a certain time in history that was informative and entertaining. There was hi-brow, low-brow and everything in between, including experimental and avant-garde shows that were accessible to a mainstream audience. The representation of women in shows about women fighting for their rights contrasted with the objectification of women in entertainment and variety shows illustrates that not much has changed over the past few decades: TV as a playground for political agendas, societal issues, and entertainment. TV 70 is an exhibition that feels personal, critical, and an homage.
Hind Mezaina is an artist and writer from Dubai. Her work delves into themes of collective memory, the notion of heritage, and the representation of Dubai and the UAE in the media. Her work is a continuous development of what she describes as a “visual archaeology” through research, observation, collecting and preserving memories. She is also the founder of www.theculturist.com, an arts and culture blog, and co-founder and co-host of Tea with Culture podcast.
a good neighbour: 15th Istanbul Biennial
16 September - 12 November 2017
Unknown to me at the time, which I am now grateful for, was the artistic practice of Elmgreen & Dragset, the curators of a good neighbour, the 2017 edition of the Istanbul Biennial. This lack of knowledge allowed me to naturally feel the complete unity of the biennial, taking it as a whole for once. None of the biennials I have been to before have such a strong feeling of unison, making this accidentally my favorite art show (and piece) this year. As I became aware of their process and work I realized how their project was the biennial, and, unlike their fake art fair The Well Fair in 2016, Elmgreen & Dragset emerge here with a very real, global and local, commentary on the xenophobic world we are in.
Elmgreen & Dragset did not include their work within the biennial but their work was ALL of the biennial. Beginning with the advertising for the fair, whether in print or in the form of online videos, the curators asked visitors, and presented to us, variations of what defines “a good neighbour,” expanding this theme beyond just the idea of ourselves and the people living next to us. This deliberately hesitant start connected to itself well, as the artist duo was able to transcend the concept via the work of fifty-six artists, whether with older selections or one of the thirty new commissioned pieces. The collection of all fifty-six artists developed the original concept created by Elmgreen & Dragset into a global connection. The language that trickled down and translated into the biennial’s art pieces was able to cover a wide array of emotions about our neighbors, about the human race and ourselves. The show was contemporary and urban, so very understanding of life, money, shifts, change, and time, but still sharp when it came to more specific representations of sadness, loss, and cultural evolution, while also adding a rural mix of imagery in order to make its urban setting look even more bizarre. Yet within this urban landscape we still saw war, displacement, and it’s affect on human life and space. (Read Wael’s full review of the Istanbul Biennial here.)
Wael Hattar is a Dubai based installation artist and critic, balancing life within the media world of branded content. He is the founder of the Young Collectors Collective and co-founder and co-host of Tea with Culture podcast.
*Main image: Exhibition view of TV 70. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti.