A shared heritage in art, as well as the influences, divergences and subsequent absorption of identity are prevalent in the intense work displayed in “Modern and Contemporary Arab Art from the Levant: the Majida Mouasher Collection” (Schilt Publishing, 2017).
Mouasher, a Dutch citizen of Jordanian origin and director of the 4 Walls Art Gallery in Amman from 2000 to 2006, describes the collection depicted in this book as “dynamic”, exposing cultural roots within and beyond the diaspora of the showcased artists. It is the expression across cultures and the ties to heritage that make this collection both outstanding and inspiring. In Mouasher’s words, “The emotions, colours and warmth of that region, as well as the sense of belonging, emerge as prevalent common factors that bind them together and reflect their heritage.”
Various factors have contributed to the evolution of contemporary Arab art. In her overview, Princess Wijdan Al-Hashemi discusses the political, economic and military ties of the region with Western countries and the influence exerted over artistic expression which served as an alienating factor from traditional artistic roots.
The rupture, while enforcing some forms of dissociation, also allowed space for artists in the Levant to absorb and understand Western concepts of art “as novices without any background”, leading to phases of expression in which the local identity was at first marginalised and later reclaimed. Al-Hashemi explains that Western artistic influence contrasted with identity and politics, the latter “in confrontation with Western hegemony.” Arab artists experimented with various forms of art, including surrealism and abstract, while at times shunning any form of identification. This phase, however, was followed by cultural awakening and differentiation from Western art, with some artists once again finding expression in Islamic art and calligraphy.
Nada Shabout’s discussion of globalised aesthetics portrays two contrasting occurrences. While most galleries are still reluctant to feature Arab art, there is also an increasing need for exhibitions which facilitate understanding of the region’s art and politics. Shabout notes that art in the diaspora has overlapped that of the host countries, with migrant artists contributing their work to the community and thus increasing cultural exposure. Contemporary Arab art, Shabout states, should not be analysed chronologically but rather within the context of political upheaval and global influences which have shaped its evolution.
Art as “open dialogue” is one of the concepts expounded upon by Luitgard Mols, who notes the discrepancies in representations between small and commercial galleries. The Majida Mouasher collection provides “a link between past and present, between local culture and the wider world.” This constant fluctuation between different realms that are also interconnected goes beyond mere exhibition to emphasise the role which museums should incorporate, that of “communicating alternative and different stories to the public.”
The artwork reproduced in the book is stunning, drawing upon various inspirational elements including Sufi mysticism, figurative, abstract, landscapes, movement and the human body. Brief biographies of the featured artists accompany their work; the latter constitutes the major part of the book. All of the artists are internationally renowned, having held exhibitions in various capital cities across Europe and the Middle East. They come from Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The array of mediums, expression and styles in the collection is mesmerising, allowing for an evolution from an initial overwhelming feeling to a coherent narrative; with each perusal of the artwork, common themes emerge to form various strands of similar narratives.
Exile is a common departure point for Palestinian and Iraqi artists in this collection, yet the actual representation of exile is not necessarily a focal point of their work. Rather, it is part of a sequence that blends into other influences. Nasr Abdul Aziz, a Palestinian artist who lived in the refugee camps in Jericho, evokes feelings that resonate with the theme of exile, yet the stronger influence of Sufism prevails in his featured art. Indeed, it is described as “a highly effective tool that does not stem from the surface nor tries to seek inspiration too far from the source.”
Another expression of the spiritual is found in Nawal Abdullah’s paintings. The selection depicting landscapes and the human figure seem to intertwine as regards consciousness. “The unfamiliar, yet sometimes very familiar, visions that come up unconsciously through my colours and splashes of paint are somehow prophetic of my life,” says the Jordanian artist.
Iraqi Saadi Al-Kaabi’s oil paintings, which form part of this collection, draw upon the human form and geometry. No facial features are visible, making the series of paintings incredibly powerful through the use of muted blue, brown, green and grey. The beauty of linking the human form with history, civilisation and relationships is impressive and occasionally subtly sensual, making one want to return for further observation and awareness.
Farouk Kaspaules is also from Iraq. He draws upon the theme of war and intervention in his painting “No Fly Zone”, which depicts 3 people in a solitary boat. The atmosphere is serene, calm blue waters and a distant landscape in dark brown and a tinge of umber, until one takes in the cacophony above; a grey sky painted in heavy, frenzied strokes and an aircraft hovering menacingly. It is a powerful depiction of how intervention is always a macabre imposition. Of his art, Kaspaules declares, “The political in art becomes an activity that cannot be separated from lived experience.”
Palestinian Khalil Raian’s oil painting of Jerusalem is bright, yet not without a sense of foreboding. In describing his art, he too insists that he cannot avoid his lived reality, the details of human pain and suffering. In the same vein, yet expressed through abstract art, Palestinian artist Nabil Shehadeh‘s work is described as comprising of “deep meditations in his paintings, wounds in the memory, destroyed and empty buildings and solid colour spaces.”
This unique collection is not one to be missed. Its accessibility in book format is a contribution which will inspire the individual to leaf through the images, read the essays and absorb additional detail on each occasion. Apart from challenging conventional standards of a divide in artistic expression between countries and cultures, this art collection is one that inspires knowledge, communication and, above everything else, a sense of connecting with one’s inner being. Politically and historically, all the reproduced artworks are imbued heavily with their own particular narratives. How these narratives strike a chord within the individual is not a story to be dismissed.