Preview: MENAM at Armory 2015

Middle East-centric shows are having a moment in American museums, but the Middle East, North Africa, and Mediterranean (MENAM) focus at this year’s Armory Show (March 4-8) will mark the first time a fair in the US has brought a large showing of art from the region to a commercial environment. Curator Omar Kholeif and focus partners Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel have selected a handful of galleries, each of which will feature a maximum of two artists, balanced between modern and contemporary. The overall curatorial vision for the section remains vague at this stage, but the line up of artists is top notch. Here are some of the things I expect to love or question the most:

Alexander and Bonin. Mona Hatoum, Turbulence (black) 2014. Glass marbles. Mona Hatoum, Photo: George Darrell.

Alexander and Bonin.
Mona Hatoum, Turbulence (black) 2014. Glass marbles.
Mona Hatoum, Photo: George Darrell.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s specially commissioned project, A Convention of Tiny Movements, will be presented at different points around the fair and is slated to include an audio essay, a series of “amalgamated objects”, and 5,000 potato chip packets distributed as freebies to the public. Abu Hamdan is known for audio installations that pinpoint the convergence of listening and politics. Potato chips are certainly much more accessible, but let’s hope that the symbolism behind these specially designed packages is not too gimmicky. On the other hand, who doesn’t appreciate a good salted snack, especially mid-fair trudge?

 

Claude Lemand Gallery. Dia Al Al-Azzawi, Blue Bird, 2013. Copyright Dia Al-Azzawi. Courtesy Claude Lemand Gallery, Paris.

Claude Lemand Gallery.
Dia Al Al-Azzawi,
Blue Bird, 2013.
Copyright Dia Al-Azzawi. Courtesy Claude Lemand Gallery, Paris.

Kalfayan Galleries. Raed Yassin, Ruins In Space, 2014. Archival inkjet print, text, sound, speaker, record cover, vinyl record, wood dimensions variable Courtesy Kalfayan Galleries, Athens – Thessaloniki

Kalfayan Galleries.
Raed Yassin,
Ruins In Space, 2014.
Archival inkjet print, text, sound, speaker, record
cover, vinyl record, wood
dimensions variable
Courtesy Kalfayan Galleries, Athens – Thessaloniki

Palestinian born powerhouse Mona Hatoum’s Turbulance project will involve loads of black glass marbles laid out in a circle in Alexander and Bonin’s booth. Dubai’s Meem Gallery will present work from the 1960’s-90’s by Syrian-born Marwan, who rather touchingly first exhibited paintings in New York more than 50 decades ago and has spent his life studying the human face and its various distortions on the canvas. Also from the modern camp are works by Dia Azzawi and Hugette Caland for good measure.

Pi Artworks Susan Hefuna Cairotraces, 2014 Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Pi.

Pi Artworks
Susan Hefuna
Cairotraces, 2014
Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Pi.

Pi Artworks. Huguette Caland Rossinante Under Cover, 2011 clay, wire, acrylic paint Courtesy of the artist, Lombard Freid Gallery, and Galerie Janine Rubeiz

Pi Artworks.
Huguette Caland
Rossinante Under Cover, 2011
clay, wire, acrylic paint
Courtesy of the artist, Lombard Freid Gallery, and Galerie Janine Rubeiz

Galerist Nil Yalter Image: harem-black-white Caption: Harem, Video, 1979 45’ Courtesy of the artist and Galerist

Galerist
Nil Yalter
Image: harem-black-white
Caption: Harem, Video, 1979 45’
Courtesy of the artist and Galerist

In contrast, Athr Gallery (which is at the forefront of Jeddah’s budding contemporary art scene) will show Ahmed Mater’s Cowboy Code’ (Hadith), a playful installation made up of red plastic toy gun caps, which displays portions of Hadith (Islam’s code of conduct) beside the old West’s cowboy code of ethics. The installation has wowed audiences in the Middle East who know a thing or two about the wild west thanks to Hollywood, but let’s hope American visitors are savvy enough when it comes to understanding Islam to pick up the message of commonality here.

Lawrie Shabibi Wafaa Bilal Canto III, Rendering. 2015.  Courtesy of Lawrie Shabibi and the artist

Lawrie Shabibi
Wafaa Bilal
Canto III, Rendering. 2015.
Courtesy of Lawrie Shabibi and the artist

Meem Gallery Marwan The Bed Sheet ( Das Laken) 1971-1972 Oil on canvas Courtesy of Meem Gallery and the artist

Meem Gallery
Marwan
The Bed Sheet ( Das Laken)
1971-1972
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Meem Gallery and the artist

Lawrie Shabibi will be presenting Canto III, a solo installation by Iraqi performance artist Wafaa Bilal, whom gallery co-founder William Lawrie describes as “an artist who needs an audience.” Expect to be offended or captivated by a 6-foot tall golden bust raised on a plinth, which is a replica of the absurd monument that Sadaam Hussein’s supporters once planned to shoot into space to orbit the earth. We won’t spoil the rest, except to mention that a collaboration with US veterans of the Iraq War is involved, as are some wonderfully kitsch tourist souvenirs.

Meem Gallery Marwan Veil, 1973 Oil on canvas Courtesy of the artist and Meem Gallery

Meem Gallery
Marwan
Veil, 1973
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of the artist and Meem Gallery

Exhibitions devoted to the Middle East's contemporary scene are popping up everywhere from The Asia Society, to MFA Boston, MoMa Ps1, and the 2014 Fotofest Biennial Arab Exhibitions. Most of these, though perhaps well intended, make the Middle East out to be a war zone, dangerously reinforcing stereotypes of the region (camels, bombs, and burqas) that do not represent everyday realities and simply add fodder to western media’s biased representation of the region. LACMA, which promoted Islamic Art Now with Shirin Neshat’s ‘Speechless’, a photograph of a somber woman beside the front sight of a pistol, is one such example. Refreshingly, The New Museum’s 2014 exhibition Here and Elsewhere managed to avoid these worn out narratives entirely. However, all of these shows continue to keep the region’s artists in a box, rather than giving them the chance to be seen as stand alone international artists.

Athr Gallery (Special Projects) Ahmed Mater  Cowboy Code (Hadith), 2012 Pier 94: Focus Lounge  Plastic Gun Caps  Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery

Athr Gallery (Special Projects)
Ahmed Mater
Cowboy Code (Hadith), 2012
Pier 94: Focus Lounge
Plastic Gun Caps
Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery

 

Taymour Grahne Faycal Baghriche Elective Purification, 2004 - 2014  Wall painting
 Courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York

Taymour Grahne
Faycal Baghriche
Elective Purification, 2004 - 2014
Wall painting

Courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York

Taymour Grahne is a former blogger who now runs the rising star of a NYC gallery by the same moniker that will present work by artist documentarians Lamia Joreige and Faycal Baghriche at the fair. Grahne told us, “I am a big proponent of calling artists "artists," and not putting regional labels on them…That being said, I think what the Armory is doing with this focus is important, because it is one of the first times Middle Eastern artists are being presented to an American collector base—it is a great and much needed introduction.”

Let’s see if Grahne is correct and Omar Kholeif is perceptive enough to avoid the regular weaknesses, or plays into the (excuse the pun) loaded images of the region that some collectors might be keen to discover at Armory. There will be plenty of chances for conversations and debate about this at the MENAM Symposium running March 7-8. Regardless, I'll be the one noisily munching on Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s potato chips in the corner.

Taymour Grahne Gallery Lamia Joreige
 Beirut, 1001 Views, 2010
 Black and white, silent, 16 minute video animation Courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York

Taymour Grahne Gallery
Lamia Joreige

Beirut, 1001 Views, 2010

Black and white, silent, 16 minute video animation
Courtesy of the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York

Good Ideas: The Armory Show will run at New York City's Piers 92 and 94 March 4-8, 2015.

Credits: Images courtesy of the artists, galleries, and The Armory Show. A version of this post was published on ArtSlant.

 

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Is Beirut Going Blank? New National Policy Threatens City's Street Art

Savvy Lebanese talk show host Zaven Kouyoumdjian broke a story on February 10 announcing that Beirut Municipality may remove all street art murals and graffiti from the city as part of a new overarching national policy to ban political slogans, posters, banners, and flags from public spaces.

While technically street art has always required a permit from the municipality, that rule was seldom enforced in the past, and writers from all over the world have visited Beirut to beautify the already vivacious city’s walls. Street art in Beirut has become so mainstream in recent years that, as Alexandra Talty noted in a 2013 article for Forbes, enterprising filmmakers, liquor companies, and even clothing brands regularly commission stencils or murals in trendy neighborhoods like Hamra.

Yazan, The King of Hamra, Bliss Street (Beirut). From Yazan's Facebook page

Yazan, The King of Hamra, Bliss Street (Beirut). From Yazan's Facebook page

Earlier this month, a mural in the Tabari neighborhood attributed to identical twin writers ASHEKMAN (aka Mohamed and Omar Kabbani) in collaboration with anti-censorship NGO March, was taken down, despite loud public outcry. It did not seem to have any bearing that the city’s governor, Ziad Chebib, had originally approved the mural, which read in Arabic, "To be Free or not to Be." Following a grassroots social media campaign under the hashtag #SaveBeirutGraffitti, Chebib conceded that the mural’s removal had been a mistake and tweeted to invite the duo to apply for a permit to repaint the wall.

Yazan, Arabic Calligraphy Cement Sculpture, beside stairs by Paint Up, Beirut, via Facebook

Yazan, Arabic Calligraphy Cement Sculpture, beside stairs by Paint Up, Beirut, via Facebook

On the list of potential hits were graffiti icon Yazan Halwani’s murals, several of which have long reached canonical status among students, 20-somethings, and are even highlighted must-sees in some tourist guidebooks. Yazan wrote on his public Facebook page “I respect the objective of the municipality to want to improve the streets of Beirut and apply laws, and I think we both have the same object (smile emoticon). But I also think there should be a distinction between artistic murals that look good and are loved by citizens and the political slogans scribbled everywhere.”

Yazan’s works at risk included a much-photographed mural of songstress Fayrouz (i.e., the Whitney Houston of the Arab world) on Gemmayzeh Street and a wall on Bliss Street titled, "The King of Hamra," which remembers a homeless man named Ali Abdallah who froze to death during a winter storm on the buzzing avenue near the American University of Beirut. Good thing Abdallah’s story and Yazan’s practice have been documented to last in both volumes of Nino Azzi’s Beirut Street Art.

While street art is inherently impermanent, it seems misplaced that these works of public art could possibly be removed as collateral damage for a recent diplomatic deal between Hezbollah and The Future Movement. Beirut Municipality should be wise enough to realize the demoralizing effect this move will have on the city’s emerging art scene as well as the larger implications of censorship.

Hopefully the approval of repainting the ASHKEMAN mural is a sign of a positive resolution for all. As a result of continued public outcry and public dialogue with Yazan, Beirut Municipality announced most recently that graffiti resembling vandalism or containing political references will be removed, while the fate of all other street art will fall to owners of the individual walls and the public. It looks like Beirut’s color is safe for now, but not its residents’ freedom of expression.

Minus 1 gate, Gemmayzeh, Beirut, via Yazan Halwani's Facebook

Minus 1 gate, Gemmayzeh, Beirut, via Yazan Halwani's Facebook

Yazan’s works at risk included a much-photographed mural of songstress Fayrouz (i.e., the Whitney Houston of the Arab world) on Gemmayzeh Street and a wall on Bliss Street titled, "The King of Hamra," which remembers a homeless man named Ali Abdallah who froze to death during a winter storm on the buzzing avenue near the American University of Beirut. Good thing Abdallah’s story and Yazan’s practice have been documented to last in both volumes of Nino Azzi’s Beirut Street Art.

While street art is inherently impermanent, it seems misplaced that these works of public art could possibly be removed as collateral damage for a recent diplomatic deal between Hezbollah and The Future Movement. Beirut Municipality should be wise enough to realize the demoralizing effect this move will have on the city’s emerging art scene as well as the larger implications of censorship.

Hopefully the approval of repainting the ASHKEMAN mural is a sign of a positive resolution for all. As a result of continued public outcry and public dialogue with Yazan, Beirut Municipality announced most recently that graffiti resembling vandalism or containing political references will be removed, while the fate of all other street art will fall to owners of the individual walls and the public. It looks like Beirut’s color is safe for now, but not its residents’ freedom of expression.

Yazan, Fayrouz on Gemmayzeh Street (Beirut) via Facebook

Yazan, Fayrouz on Gemmayzeh Street (Beirut) via Facebook

Credits: This post originally appeared on ArtSlant. Images were sourced on Yazan's Facebook page.

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The Louvre Abu Dhabi: Prestige Project or Paradigm Shift?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s roof weighs the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower—Its dome references the Islamic architectural cornerstone of the mosque. According to French architect Jean Nouvel’s poetic vision of a “rain of light”, an intricate layer of geometric incisions in the dome will optimize sunlight to create a constantly changing installation inside the museum. Set to open its doors to the public by the close of 2015, the 260,000 square foot Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first museum to be constructed in Saadiyat Cultural District which will also feature the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi,  Zayed National Museum, other museums, academic institutions, and Abu Dhabi Art--all in close proximity to luxury villas, hotels, and beaches.

Saadiyat Cultural District. Copyright Tourism Development and Investment Company

Saadiyat Cultural District. Copyright Tourism Development and Investment Company

Museums are one of the requisite status symbols of a developed country, and Abu Dhabi—whose culture has expanded with nothing short of unveiled audacity—is eager to be viewed in line with Paris, London, Hong Kong, and other global cultural power players. With the Louvre name having been secured by the Abu Dhabi government for a purported $525 million US dollars as part of a larger diplomatic agreement signed by the governments of Abu Dhabi and France, the institution will retain the Louvre name for 30 years, and the support of experts from the 13 Agence France-Museums for 15 years, with around 300 masterpieces on temporary loan for a decade.

The museum’s development has been controversial from the start, causing sceptics to wonder if culture can be franchised. Allegations that Abu Dhabi is effectively “bankrolling” the restoration of a wing in the Louvre Paris in exchange for using the Louvre brand, is one of many examples of bad press. However, it’s important to be clear that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is not analogous to yet one more Louis Vuitton store imported “cut and paste” from Paris to a luxurious UAE mall.

Under dome, Louvre Abu Dhabi,  Design by Jean Nouvel, Copyright Tourism Development and Investment  Company

Under dome, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Design by Jean Nouvel, Copyright Tourism Development and Investment Company

In a phone conversation, Jean-Francois Charnier, Curatorial Director of Agence France-Museums, clarified: “there is not only the name of the Louvre but there are also the expertise of 100 curators and their research and library involved in this project. It is not just an empty shell of a name.” He described the Louvre Abu Dhabi as an inventive departure from the French Louvre, emphasizing its unique ambition to become the first universal museum in the Arab world which will tell the story of art history by focusing on how cultures and civilizations have grown through common linkages, rather than isolating each school of art in an airtight wing and keeping in line with a tired (and at times inaccurate) narrative. “We are aiming to show an alternative to the Western point of view when it comes to museums…we can see that Europe is not always in the center of things.” Abu Dhabi, which historically served as the crossroads for global trade and today is home to residents from 140 nationalities, is a fitting testing ground for this new typology.

The 2014 ‘Birth of a Museum’ exhibition and accompanying catalogue provided the public with a first peek into these curatorial principles. It presented visitors to Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat  space with an appetizer of 130 artworks including a Picasso, a Bactrian princess statuette, and nine canvases by the American painter Cy Twombly, all organized around six unifying themes that examined universal questions.

Given the immense cost of constructing the Louvre Abu Dhabi, acquiring a permanent collection, and retaining a team of highly educated experts to consult, it is a given that visitors will be expected to pay entrance fees, though there is as yet no word on the specific amount that will be assessed for admission or precise opening hours. Saadiyat Island is a long ride from the heart of Abu Dhabi and for many, a prohibitively pricey cab or bus ride from Dubai and the other emirates. Although Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority has conducted focus groups and feasibility studies, one wonders if the museum will truly be accessible to those residents and tourists who do not have cash to burn in their pockets. Many UAE residents are expats who work long weeks and may only have evenings or Friday afternoons off. Will the general population be able to justify the time and cost of admission?

An aerial view of Saadiyat Cultural District, Copyright Tourism Development and Investment Company

An aerial view of Saadiyat Cultural District, Copyright Tourism Development and Investment Company

It is not unusual to view a world-class exhibition at one of Sharjah’s 17 museums  or Dubai’s more established galleries, and find oneself completely alone with the work. Although this is thrilling for the art-obsessed visitor, these same shows would be packed shoulder to shoulder in Europe or the US, probably with a security guard clearing his throat to move crowds along through the displays. It seems that beyond compulsory school trips, the notion of visiting a museum during one’s leisure time rather than circling a mall or slumping in a darkened, air-conditioned cinema, has not yet resonated with the general public in the region. However, the Louvre Abu Dhabi's Talking Art Series, which provides a platform for the public to learn about the museum and its collection through lectures by experts has been standing room only—an indication that at least a modest base of participatory museum enthusiasts exists locally.

It may be a further challenge to convince tourists coming to the UAE for shopping, beach time, and nightlife to consider a sophisticated detour to the Saadiyat Cultural District. In order to really build a universal museum, the folks at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and TCA have their work cut out for them if they want to bring in the crowds that this kind of institution and its expenditure truly merit. However, considering that in under half a century the UAE has devised a cosmopolitan and peaceful country from a humble trade center dependent upon pearl diving, Abu Dhabi’s potential to emerge as a cultural capital almost overnight shouldn't be doubted. .

Louvre Abu Dhabi, Design by Jean  Nouvel, Copyright Tourism Development and Investment Company

Louvre Abu Dhabi, Design by Jean Nouvel, Copyright Tourism Development and Investment Company

Good Ideas: To learn more about the Louvre Abu Dhabi go here.

Credits: This feature was published on ArtSlant.

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Everyday Middle East: More Than Camels

Two female police officers attempt to control traffic in Cairo’s chaotic streets. Friends covet pairs of shoes displayed in a shop window in Tabriz. Three boys prepare to high dive into a cold swimming pool on a humid afternoon in Baghdad. Images like these documenting everyday life in the region don’t always make news.

At a packed talk last week at Gulf Photo Plus presenting Everyday Middle East, a project and accompanying photography exhibition with the same title, Gulf Photo Plus founder Mohamed Somji said, “This project shows that the Middle East is not just about camels, mosques, and women in hijab. Because if you Google “Middle East” that is just what you’d see.”

The project’s founder Lindsay Mackenzie moved to Tunisia as a freelance photojournalist following the first events of the Arab Spring and began to shoot what she saw on the ground—from Tunis Fashion Week, to art gallery openings, the underground hip hop scene, and regular people shopping or drinking coffee downtown.

Early morning Algiers. Photo by @lindsay_mackenzie, April 2013, Algiers

Early morning Algiers. Photo by @lindsay_mackenzie, April 2013, Algiers

Though she would send pitches to international publications to cover human interest stories, the editors would frequently reject her ideas, countering with a request for Salafis, protestors, fully veiled women and other images that reinforced the mainstream Western media’s stereotypes of what it is like to live in the region. In September, 2012 Newsweek published an issue with the provocative cover story, “Muslim Rage”, prompting Mackenzie to take matters into her own hands and offer an alternative visual narrative to document the realities of the region.

Everyday Middle East was launched on Instagram (@EverydayMiddleEast) in March, 2014 as a collaboration between 25 contributors, all of whom are professional photographers based around the region, committed to using their mobile phones to shoot street shots and portraits for the project’s communal feed which transcend politics, conflict, and clichés. All contributors have access to the social media account and a different image is posted each day, much to the delight of a growing cult following.

West bank spring wedding, Zaffa, street celebration entrance, 2013. Photo by Tanya Habjouqa @habjouqa

West bank spring wedding, Zaffa, street celebration entrance, 2013. Photo by Tanya Habjouqa @habjouqa

Four of the contributors who have been working together virtually for over a year met face to face for the first time at The Gulf Photo Plus talk last week. Baghdad-based photojournalist Ahmad Mousa, who shoots mainly street shots for the project from Iraq, explained, “These images are not shown to most people by the media. It feels important to show the real picture of the region by posting scenes of everyday life both from the city and countryside.”

Photographs from each of the project’s 25 contributors are exhibited at Gulf Photo Plus and can be viewed through 26 February. Here's a selection:

 

I told Gaith that I'm jealous. Photo by @lauraboushnak in Tunis, Tunisia. April 2013.

I told Gaith that I'm jealous. Photo by @lauraboushnak in Tunis, Tunisia. April 2013.

Italian-born artist Lidia al-Qattan, wife of late Kuwaiti artist Khalifa al-Qattan, prepares tea in her house of mirrors in #Kuwait, March 2014. Photo by Sarah Dea

Italian-born artist Lidia al-Qattan, wife of late Kuwaiti artist Khalifa al-Qattan, prepares tea in her house of mirrors in #Kuwait, March 2014. Photo by Sarah Dea @_saradea_

Two female police officers control traffic in downtown Cairo. Photo by @samuel_aranda13, June 2014.

Two female police officers control traffic in downtown Cairo. Photo by @samuel_aranda13, June 2014.

Some young people during shop at a mall named Laleh Park in Tabriz, Iran on 30 March 2014. Photo by Hanif Shoaei @HanifShoaei.

Some young people during shop at a mall named Laleh Park in Tabriz, Iran on 30 March 2014. Photo by Hanif Shoaei @HanifShoaei.

Opening night at an art gallery in the burgeoning @Alserkalavenue Art District in #Dubai. Photo by Mohamed Somji @msomji

Opening night at an art gallery in the burgeoning @Alserkalavenue Art District in #Dubai. Photo by Mohamed Somji @msomji

Ahmad Mousa, Iraq

Ahmad Mousa, Iraq

Smoke and light through the windows of a coffee shop on the island of Zamalek, Cairo. Photo by Christina Rizk @christinarizk

Smoke and light through the windows of a coffee shop on the island of Zamalek, Cairo. Photo by Christina Rizk @christinarizk

Young Palestinian women visit Al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem. Photo by Tanya Habjouqa @habjouqa

Young Palestinian women visit Al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem. Photo by Tanya Habjouqa @habjouqa

Emirati men behind a beaded curtain in Abu Dhabi. Photo by Tamara Abdul Hadi @tamarabdul

Emirati men behind a beaded curtain in Abu Dhabi. Photo by Tamara Abdul Hadi @tamarabdul

An Arabic language typewriter, found at the Friday market in Cairo, Egypt. David Degner @degnerd

An Arabic language typewriter, found at the Friday market in Cairo, Egypt. David Degner @degnerd

Good Ideas: Gulf Photo Plus on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai will be exhibiting photography by the Everyday Middle East collective through February 26, 2015. Be sure to follow Everyday Middle East on Instagram @everydaymiddleeast. The collective is in the process of registering as a non for profit organization.

 

Photo Credits: Each image has been credited to the photographer. All images appear courtesy of Everyday Middle East in collaboration with Gulf Photo Plus

Note: This piece was co-posted on The National's Art Blog. Special thanks to Anna Seaman for inviting me to guest blog.

 

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The Moving Studio: In Conversation with Hazem Harb

Hazem Harb drew the roman shades in his home studio to block out the shockingly bright desert views and force himself to concentrate. He was finishing the plans for 'Invisible Landscapes and Concrete Futures', his upcoming solo show at Salsali Private Museum in Dubai. The show’s press release had come out that day and ours was the first interview he would give of many. As a result, he projected a kind of calm intensity.
Although Harb’s home is Gaza—a place he can’t easily enter and exit—he is also an Italian citizen. Yet he has moved studio more than 20 times, carrying the important things—his sketchbooks, a brown leather suitcase with buckles, old photographs of Palestine—from country to country.

Construction sites and the desert as viewed from Hazem Harb's dusty studio window. Photo by Danna Lorch

Construction sites and the desert as viewed from Hazem Harb's dusty studio window. Photo by Danna Lorch

In 2013 the British Museum acquired Harb’s photography series, 'Beyond Memory', and the smartly titled 'Invisible Travels', installed in the Athr Gallery’s booth at last year’s edition of Art Dubai, caused many visitors to swallow sharply as they came face to face with a line up of 20 steel suitcases hollowed out to represent a Gaza tunnel—a stark reminder of the daily realities just a short journey away from the fair’s luxurious halls.

Harb has been honing the concept for 'Invisible Landscapes and Concrete Futures' for more than two years, wrestling with the junctions between history, memory, power, and the future in the context of Palestine. To-scale renderings of architectural models and sculptures for the exhibition were piled on every possible surface of the studio (other than his wife’s pristine white couch) in evidence of an obsession with structures and their destruction.

He turned down the classical music, poured us each a glass of strong Arabic coffee, and sketched in a thin notebook as we sat speaking in muddled light.

Arabic coffee and sweets in Hazem Harb's home studio space in Dubai

Arabic coffee and sweets in Hazem Harb's home studio space in Dubai

Danna Lorch: Since you left Gaza for Italy at age 22 you’ve inhabited more than 20 studios, and you’ve moved spaces somewhat nomadically. Does the actual studio in which you work and live matter, or is just a shell to wear on your back, unpack, create from, and bundle up again?

Hazem Harb: First of all, I am outside my original country. I have always combined my home with my studio. It requires physical time to ground myself and I often don’t have long enough to form a connection with each place. It doesn’t matter where my studio is; the studio is the studio.

Vintage maps of Palestine on Hazem Harb's drafting desk

Vintage maps of Palestine on Hazem Harb's drafting desk

Hazem Harb, Invisible Travels, from the We Used To Fly on Water series, Steel Case Installation, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Athr Art, Jeddah

Hazem Harb, Invisible Travels, from the We Used To Fly on Water series, Steel Case Installation, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Athr Art, Jeddah

DL: Why are you an artist?

HH: The answer to that question involves the historic photographs of Palestine (before the Nakbah) that are connected to my upcoming show at Salsali. As a boy, I used to beg my mother to take out black and white photos. I remember she kept them in an old Arabic sweets tin. This was my first feeling of nostalgia, the moment I began to question why I was different from the other children. Now, with this show I am answering my childhood self.

DL: Archival drawings, maps, and photographs of Palestine are taped to all four of your studio walls. The theme of memory returns again and again in your work. How are you grappling with it this time?

HH: By examining the archaeology of the Occupation I am proposing a memory of the future. I am enquiring into what will be uncovered regarding Palestine in the decades and centuries to come. Will we find [only] a piece of concrete? I have a dystopian vision.

Diagrams of the Baramki House on Hazem Harb's desk

Diagrams of the Baramki House on Hazem Harb's desk

Hazem Harb and his sketches in his temporary Dubai studio. Photo by Danna Lorch

Hazem Harb and his sketches in his temporary Dubai studio. Photo by Danna Lorch

DL: This is intriguing. By focusing on the future you are pointing out how politics have not only caused Palestinian culture to be interpreted in a certain vein now, but may result in a distinctly conflict-centric memory of the land in the future.

HH: In one of the main installations in the show, I will be reconceiving a room from the Baramki House* in Jerusalem, which talks about the history of that home. Thousands of Palestinian homes were occupied after the Nakbah and this is a memory of all of them. This house is especially interesting because it has recently been turned into a museum.

Hazem Harb, Re-Build. Foam mattress, concrete block, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Athr Art, Jeddah

Hazem Harb, Re-Build. Foam mattress, concrete block, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Athr Art, Jeddah

Hazem Harb and his sketches. Courtesy of Salsali Private Museum

Hazem Harb and his sketches. Courtesy of Salsali Private Museum

DL: You are considering the way that a culture is “museumized,” and this case is poignant because many of the people who originally inhabited this home and their descendants are not able to gain access even to the museum.

HH: I have taken Mr. Baramki’s architectural plans and reimagined the original home. I’ve also experimented for the first time with a video sculpture installation.

Models for an upcoming solo show at Salsali Private Museum in Hazem Harb's studio. Photo by Danna Lorch

Models for an upcoming solo show at Salsali Private Museum in Hazem Harb's studio. Photo by Danna Lorch

Hazem Harb, Sustainable Waiting. Digital Print and collage on wood, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah

Hazem Harb, Sustainable Waiting. Digital Print and collage on wood, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah

DL: In a recent TV interview you were positioned as a political artist and a Gazan artist. Is that representation accurate?

HH: I don’t care about the political situation, but I do feel a responsibility for the work because it fulfils a personal need. Even if I am talking about human life under a difficult situation, it doesn’t mean that I am a political artist. I am an artist and a human being; I am everyone.

Renderings and plans for an upcoming show. Courtesy of Salsali Private Museum

Renderings and plans for an upcoming show. Courtesy of Salsali Private Museum

Hazem Harb, Everything is Non Permanent,  Exhibition View. Mixed media, 2014 Photograph by Oak Taylor-Smith

Hazem Harb, Everything is Non Permanent, Exhibition View. Mixed media, 2014 Photograph by Oak Taylor-Smith

DL: If in the future there were no longer a conflict in Gaza, do you imagine your practice would continue to revolve around the history of the place?

HH: Even if the situation changed, the memories of the place would never be removed from the land. Every single meter of Palestine contains them. As an artist, the resource of my work is the human experience, so I’d imagine I’d continue to focus on Gaza but not on the suffering—on the collective memory.

Note: *The Baramki House sits in West Jerusalem and is a villa originally designed in the 1930s as a family home by the prominent Palestinian architect Adoni Baramki, then appropriated by the state of Israel. Following that time, Baramki never had the chance to live in the house he had built but circled it on foot nearly daily until his death in 1972. The building now serves as The Museum on the Seam, listed as a socio-political contemporary art space.

Good Ideas:  'Invisible Landscapes and Concrete Futures' opens at Salsali Private Museum on Alserkal Avenue in Dubai in March, 2015 and will be curated by Lara Khaldi. To see more of Hazem Harb's work visit Athr Art.

Credits: This interview was originally published on ArtSlant. Special thanks to Hazem Harb, Salsali Private Museum and Athr Art.

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