Seeking to gauge the year in art, Jadaliyya’s culture page invited artists, writers, and other cultural practitioners to share their thoughts on some of the most impactful shows of 2018. Together, the reviews below reflect how curatorial practices, particularly in the context of institutions (museums, biennials, and universities), are rapidly changing in order to meet the current demands of criticism and art historical discourse. Issues such as museums and social justice, equity, and decolonization, including cultural heritage and repatriation, remain at the center of intense debates that have played out in nearly every corner of the art world—from the pages of glossy magazines to the galleries of encyclopedic museums. Artists and activist groups are leading the way with biting commentary and direct actions that draw attention to the fact that museums are not neutral but in fact often in the service of power, and that “encouraging dialogue” is not enough.
From Washington DC to Karachi, our guest writers highlight artists, collectives, and curators who are part of this necessary shift. By gathering these reviews, we also aim to direct readers to the important work of our contributors.
[Helen Zughaib, Syrian Migration series #2 (2017).]
Water/ماء: Trespassing Liquid Highways
Curated by Ikram Lakhdhar
Gallery 102, Washington DC
10 September – 12 October 2018
Curated by Ikram Lakhdhar, this exhibition presented the subject of water as a transnational grounding between demarcated areas of the Mediterranean Sea and the Caribbean. Edouard Glissant’s Theory of Relationality was used as an interpretative tool to intersect the histories of these bodies of water (referred to as liquid highways) being crossed by humans bodies—provoked by natural and human-made disasters.
This exhibition challenged my conceptions of the impermeable nature of borders beyond the dissection of land, and how water is used as a tool to commodify the exploitation of human bodies for economic gain. More deeply, restricted access to drinking water and free travel are also bound to class privilege, human rights, and the larger discourse on liberation.
The relationship of the artwork images to the diasporic poetry found in the catalogue—and the distance between the writer/artist and homeland further projected a matrix of relationalities, thus expanding on Glissant’s framework. Overall, this exhibition not only reminds us of the water that trickles into our everyday, but also of its use as a passageway into the exploration, creation, and destruction of worlds beyond our own.
Jenna Hamed is a curator and writer based in New York City.
[Heba Y. Amin, The Master's Tools I (restaging of Herman Soergel's portrait) (2018).]
Geographies of Imagination
Curated by Antonia Alampi and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung
SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin
13 September – 11 November 2018
I walk down a staircase and see “THIS IS NOT A GEOGRAPHY LESSON” written above the doorframe, good. As a member of a diasporic community still suffering the consequences of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, the 1948 partition, and a subsequent ongoing colonial campaign to wipe Palestine off the map, I never put much stock into my traditional geography lessons. I know there is always more to a place than arbitrary labels and lines.
At a time when “Othering” feels most intense; simultaneously commodified and celebrated by neoliberal institutions and co-opted by conservative discourse, SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin presents Geographies of Imagination. The exhibition, curated by Antonia Alampi and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, consists of artists interested in dis-othering: rejecting the violent role that imagination has played in defining “Othered” histories, regions, nationalities, and identities, engaging with geography at the center of global power dynamics that exist to “Other,” and imagining possibilities of justness.
Works range from topics of family history to nationalism through textile, sculpture, new media, installation, ceramics, and more. Saddie Choua’s multimedia installation Am I the Only One Who is Like Me uses found footage, audio fragments, literature, and her own personal archive to highlight structures of power inherent in media and the white myths they produce. Heba Y. Amin’s Operation Sunken Sea references twentieth-century declassified CIA documents and mimics neo-fascist institutional language as she proposes to drain and reroute the Mediterranean Sea; converging the continents of Europe and Africa into one supercontinent, ending terrorism and migration crises, and locating new futures for those most affected by resource-driven wars in Africa and the Middle East. Complete with a reading space full of books and zines dedicated to all areas of decolonization, Geographies of Imagination suggests new ways to dismantle oppressive systems and belong.
Lamia Abukhadra is a Palestinian American artist based in Minneapolis. She uses her interdisciplinary research-based practice as a platform to challenge harmful dominant narratives that perpetuate acts of violence and ethnic cleansing in Palestine and the Middle East. Lamia is a 2018-2019 Jerome Emerging Printmaking Resident at Highpoint Center for Printmaking. Notable projects include The Wall, a temporary public art installation supported by the Soap Factory in 2017.
2018 saw a number of exhibitions that spoke to the changing social and political climate in Canada and the United States. These exhibitions stood in contrast to hyperbolic and populist rhetoric (often pushed forth by politicians) that sought to divide and trivialize concerns regarding climate change, Indigenous rights, and global exchange—amongst the many other challenging issues facing humanity towards living an ethical life on this planet. In Canada, we saw the federal government flip-flop on a number of environmental policy promises and on Indigenous issues. In my new home province of Alberta, the debate on the development of the tar sands and the construction of pipelines will continue to shape the upcoming 2019 provincial elections.
This past year I saw a number of exhibitions in Canada and the United States. The following are the ones that stood out:
Curated by Jaime Isaac and Julie Nagam
Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba
22 September 2017 – 22 April 2018
This group exhibition featuring twenty-nine Indigenous artists from across Canada spoke to the immensely diverse and interconnected issues related to Indigenous representation, cultural practices, and history. The range of practices from photography and tattooing to installation and beadwork in this exhibition reminded me of the necessary work that art galleries and museums must do in amplifying Indigenous art and voices—voices that have been historically and systematically marginalized (and up until 1951, even federally outlawed) in settler Canadian society. Highlights include Michif artist Amy Malbeuf’s Cream and Sugar (2017) work that features caribou hair-tufting on inherited china and Muskeg Lake Cree Nation artist Joi T. Arcand’s text-based installation Don’t Speak English (2017), which cascaded down the stairs of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Essma Imady: Thicker than Water
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota
15 March – 24 June 2018
Syrian-American artist Essma Imady’s solo exhibition Thicker than Water at the Minneapolis Institute of Art directly confronts issues of loss and longing in regard to the current Syrian civil war, with a focus on the ways children experience war after fleeing into exile. One of the main works in the exhibition, titled Synechism, is a sixteen-part video installation that presents the thoughts of Syrian refugee children (mostly in Canada and Turkey). Another poignant work is Pillar of Salt (2018), which is composed of a mound of a child’s weight in salt and a backpack, an installation that harkens to the Biblical story of Lot’s wife turning back—unwisely—to have one last look at the City of Sodom before its destruction and turning into salt. Each of the objects in the exhibition corresponds to the video installation and most, if not all, of the included works drew on histories and practices common to Islamic, Judaic, and Christian faiths.
[Lori Blondeau, Grace: A Survey, installation image, 2016, College Art Galleries, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.
Photographed by Carey Shaw.]
Grace: A Survey
Curated by Leah Taylor
Kenderdine Art Galleries, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
15 June – 30 August 2018
A long-overdue mid-career retrospective of multidisciplinary Cree/Saulteaux/Métis artist Lori Blondeau at the Kenderdine Art Galleries in Saskatoon highlighted the artist’s foundational performance and photographic practice. Early works such as COSMOSQUAW (1996) poke fun at the unrealistic beauty tropes perpetuated by women’s fashion magazines, while more recent works such as Asiniy Iskwew(2016), which translates from Cree to “Rock Woman,” contemplate the role rock formations play in Indigenous cosmology. This self-portrait was also part of the nation-wide, year-long Resilience Billboard Project organized by Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art and curated by Lee-Ann Martin. Featuring approximately twenty works spanning from 1996 to the present, Grace: A Survey reminded us of Blondeau’s role and contributions to art in Canada.
[Divya Mehra, Afterlife of Colonialism, a reimagining of Power: It’s possible that the Sun has set on your Empire OR Why your voice does not matter: Portrait of an Imbalanced, and yet contemporary diasporic India vis-à-vis Colonial Red, Curry Sauce Yellow, and Paradise Green, (2018). Photographed by Nadia Kurd.]
Vision Exchange: Perspectives from India to Canada
Curated by Catherine Crowston and Jonathan Shaughnessy
Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta
29 September 2018– 6 January 2019
Vision Exchange is perhaps one of the first large-scale exhibitions in Canada of contemporary art by artists from India and its diaspora. Curated by Catherine Crowston and Jonathan Shaughnessy, the exhibition featured twenty artists that explore cultural, social, and political past-present tensions in the dominant country of the South Asian subcontinent. The 1947 Partition, the Kashmir issue, and the diaspora of Indian migrants from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were some of the primary themes of the exhibition. Contrasted to the more serious works, South Asian-Canadian artist Divya Mehra’s large bouncy castle Taj Mahal illustrated the iconic, yet kitsch value of the Indo-Islamic mausoleum. While obviously inviting, a prominent sign in front of the installation reminded all visitors that “no jumping” was allowed. This exhibition will continue travel to various Canadian cities in 2019.
Nadia Kurd is a curator and art historian based in Alberta, Canada. Find her on Twitter at @nadia_kurd.
[Farhad Moshiri, Frosting Stories (2017), installation view. Photographed by Golnar Yarmohammad Touski.]
Farhad Moshiri: Go West
Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh PA
13 October 2017–14 January 2018
I have never been quite the fan of Pop Art or many of the Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri’s earlier works, but his recent series, Frosting Stories, exhibited at the Andy Warhol Museum, revealed a more playful, satirical, and poignant take on Iranian consumer culture: a collection of highly decorated, woven panels saturated with glitter and faux-meringue, reminiscent of wedding cakes. Moshiri’s use of script in Frosting Stories is twofold; on the one hand it highlights consumption of Persian script in popular culture and the art market alike and on the other, uses obsessive repetition and “bling-bling” to rewrite the artist’s story of growing up in a tumultuous time in a disorienting, blinding way so that it is no longer painful, but illusively edible. The panels attack sensory receptors and leave the viewer with a lingering bitterness of implicitly violent scenes of childhood stories. When seen in relation to its woven symbols, Frosting Stories is in effect a violent account of growing up against a confluence of American entertainment, coming of age motifs, and sociopolitical tension.
The discomfort implicit in Frosting Stories lies not just in the encounter with the post-1979-revolution, neoliberal economic boom of 1990s in Iran, globalized capitalism, and American culture but in subversion of previous generation’s revolutionary hopes and sublimity of calligraphy as “national art.” This turns into a fervor to consume, possess, and eat. Tactility of artworks as cake and their invitation to consume collapse at the moment of realizing the frostings are made of plastic and acrylic paint. Such disconnect between imitation and reality halts fulfillment of desire—a summation of crushed hope that the artworks allude to.
From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home
Carnegie International 57th Edition, 2018
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh PA
13 Oct 2018 – 25 Mar 2019
From El Anatsui to Saba Innab, the fifty-seventh edition of Carnegie International features a diverse map of artists dealing with the question of contemporaneity and global sociopolitical challenges. I was mostly impressed by the presence of many artist collectives at the exhibition, such as Art Labor, a grassroots organization to support contemporary art in Vietnam, and Postcommodity, a convention of indigenous artists based in Albuquerque, New Mexico and Los Angeles and San Francisco, California.
Postcommodity’s temporary site-specific installation, From Smoke and Tangled Waters We Carried Fire Home (2018), was inspired by Navajo sand painting, and is located right in the middle of the Hall of Sculpture at Carnegie Museum. The installation is basically a mass of glass, rusted steel, and coal, all taken from Pittsburgh’s local sources. The vast field of industrial debris in abstract shapes sets a sharp, unsettling contrast to its Western European classical surroundings. As stated in the catalogue, Navajo sand painting is “a ceremony of chanting and picture making that ends with a completed painting being swept up, thus closing the temporary portal it created for deities to come to earth to cleanse, cure and avert catastrophe,” which is precisely what the title does for the installation: to enliven an otherwise inanimate pile of steel.
The artwork aside, the nature of collaborative work and its significant presence at a big event such as Carnegie International indicate a promising shift in art making. Artist collectives seem to be emerging everywhere and, I hope, mark a break with forever dominant paradigm of the individual artist as singular, omnipotent, arbiter of creativity, or (the word we historians of contemporary art hate the most): genius.
Golnar Yarmohammad Touski is a doctoral student researching Iranian and Middle Eastern contemporary art at University of Pittsburgh, department of History of Art and Architecture.
Who Gets To Talk About Whom: Collective Thinking and its Politics in the Postcolonial Turn
Curated by Hajra Haider
AAN Gandhara Art Space, Karachi
5 July – 4 August 2018
In a year dominated by large-scale exhibitions focused on garnering international attention, like the first Lahore Biennale, Who Gets To Talk About Whom stood out because of its rigorously local and decolonial framework. While the Lahore Biennale used the city as a stage for its high-end production, decorating streets, museums, and historical sites with layers of art, Who Gets To Talk About Whom engaged with the archival and cultural layers of representations that configure the city as a living, changing space where categories like race, class, gender, and sexuality are negotiated. This critical interrogation of the city—the histories and futures of its public spaces—was strengthened by the collaborative ethos of the exhibition. Nine works were selected for the exhibition, each of them made by a team of artists, many of them working in collaboration with local communities. Furthermore, the exhibition ran alongside a series of discursive panels that invited critics, translators, artists, musicians, and academics to participate in discussions around the underlining themes of the exhibition: cultural translation, gender mobility, pedagogical practices, and vernacular representation. The combined effect of the exhibition and panels was an insistent push to collectively decolonize the politics of representation.
The video, The Tentative Collective’s A Pakhtun Memory (2011), captured a musical performance by Pakhtun migrants at a public roundabout in Karachi. The musicians and dancers allowed working class Pakhtun migrants to create a space for themselves in a city tightly surveilled and controlled by racist security regimes. The film captures the everyday spaces occupied by Pakhtun migrants, their negotiations with the police, and the discussions among the artists before the performance. Another video, Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani’s Rakshas Railways (2018), undoes the colonial archive by engaging with the ghosts of state violence lurking inside railway infrastructures. Such collaborative video works that engage archives and public spaces to reimagine the politics of representation are reminiscent of collectives like the Sankofa Film and Video Collective and Black Audio Film Collective, collectives formed by Black British artists in the early eighties to bring attention to race riots and repressive policing practices while also reminding audiences of Britain’s colonial past.
Most importantly, the exhibition and panels pushed against the idea that representation is always liberating. Many communities in Pakistan are woefully under-represented, however, for a writer, artist, corporation or brand to claim it aims to represent everyone is hardly the answer. The idea of “everyone” actually only refers to a sliver of the population. For minorities to be included in this “everyone” they must be “model” minorities. Similarly, women must be good women and LGBTQI communities must tone it down. How should artists, writers, and students contend with these ideas of everyone? Ahmer Naqvi, a critic who spoke at one of the panels attached to the exhibition, suggested that there is a need to hijack people’s ideas of “everyone” and infiltrate it with lots of different identities. This is a powerful idea. A work like A Pakhtun Memory cleaves a space for Pakhtun migrants in the city’s everyday and “everyone.” This notion of “everyone” is, after all, unnatural. Hijacking this conception of normativity with several representations that beg otherwise will cause it to tremble. Maybe even to weaken.
Haider Shahbaz has a degree in history from Yale University. His work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Brooklyn Rail, Himal Southasian, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Lahore and teaches at FC College.
Amna Chaudhry is currently pursuing her Masters in South Asia studies at SOAS. She is also a member of Girls at Dhabas.
Charles White: A Retrospective
Museum of Modern Art, New York
7 October 2018 – 13 January 2019
This excellent survey of Charles White’s paintings, drawings, and prints confirmed his importance as one of the twentieth century’s greatest draftsman and a politically committed artist who understood the power of representation.
Detailing the various stages of White’s work—from WPA era murals and vigorous paintings and drawings inspired by Mexico’s muscular modernism to his later symbolist portraits that were aligned with the Black Arts Movement—A Retrospective traced the evolution of his influential approach to figuration. White was active in Chicago, where he was born and raised, received his artistic training, and first became politically active; then furthered his aesthetic in New York among the progressive cultural milieu of leftist artists, writers, and activists; and matured as an artist and mentor in Los Angeles, where he continued teaching and influenced a new generation.
This retrospective, the first museum survey devoted to White, featured more than one hundred works, most of which are rarely seen outside of thematic group shows. White’s importance has long been known, as he received wide acclaim during his lifetime, yet what A Retrospective achieved was the historical foregrounding of his mastery as a portraitist, reminding viewers that American portraiture has always been political, and that the best artists have revolutionized its forms with this in mind.
The exhibition’s accompanying monograph contains a selection of essays that are nothing short of groundbreaking scholarship, including a text by leading art historian Kellie Jones (whose father, poet Amiri Baraka, launched the Black Arts Movement in 1965) that contextualizes his work within the context of black feminism in the 1950s. The publication also features an annotated timeline, a detailed look at White’s personal library, and an exhaustive exhibition history, making it indispensable to the study of twentieth-century American art.
[Melissa Chimera, Old Country (2017). Courtesy of the Arab American National Museum.]
The Far Shore: Navigating Homelands
Curated by Melissa Chimera
10 November 2018 – 7 April 2019
Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, Michigan
While the works of Arab and Arab American novelists and poets have received significant attention in recent years, visual artists and the general history of Arab diasporic art in the United States continue to be neglected. Most artists in the United States who identify with the Arab diaspora work independently or in small circles supported by a handful of organizations like Mizna. Moreover, there are only a few artist collectives, fewer galleries devoted exclusively to showing their work, and only one museum committed to the community. Without a supportive art scene, trying to navigate institutional culture and the market (the latter is informed by and upholds the former) can be frustrating, time consuming, and often pointless. Yet as Arab American artists continue to create notable works, many organize and publish with the aim of forging greater connections among their peers while establishing the groundwork for a more thorough reading of this branch of American art history.
The Far Shore: Navigating Homelands is a moving group show that works toward this end goal. Curated by Melissa Chimera for the Arab American National Museum, the exhibition pairs artists like Helen Zughaib and Rania Matar with poets who explore the subject of migration, particularly how the trauma of displacement can be intergenerational. Chimera includes her own work—delicately embroidered and beautifully painted mixed-media canvases and an ornate wedding dress that shimmers despite appearing to be charred—with texts by her mother, poet Adele Ne Jame, reprinted on an adjacent wall. In doing so, Chimera demonstrates how Arab artists have frequently assumed the role of curator or historian when such professional needs are not being met. What often becomes clear in these instances is that overlapping themes and parallel approaches stem from shared experiences, and that artist-curators have an insider's advantage of working instinctively, and perceptively, thus drawing our attention to details that might otherwise be missed.
Maymanah Farhat is co-editor of Jadaliyya’s culture page.