NEW YORK: In Raed Yassin’s “Final Destination,” a male body plunges into the Mediterranean, his movements slowed down and distorted by the manipulation of a videocassette with magnets. In Marwa Arsanios’ “I’ve Heard Stories,” live action footage and video animation combine to tell the story of a dancer who disappeared decades ago in Beirut.
In Negar Behbahani’s “Every Night Three Kisses,” a woman embroiders the skin stretched across her sternum with a needle and thread.
In Mirak Jamal’s “Running Man,” the artist re-enacts an instantly recognizable dance move from the 1980s on derelict sites with evocative histories.
“Antinormanybody” is a tiny but terrific exhibition of contemporary art from the Middle East, which is currently crammed into Kleio Projects, a narrow storefront hosting an experimental art space on New York’s Lower East Side. Organized by Barrak Alzaid, a young performance artist from Kuwait who is the artistic director of Arte East, it rescues notions of gender, sexuality and the body from the usual, tired and tedious clichés.
“The aesthetics are operating in a really strong way here,” says Alzaid about the works in the show, which represents his curatorial debut. “Works about sex, the body and gender in the Middle East are usually very didactic. But all of the works here can stand on their own as works.”
Standing in front of Behbahani’s video, which pairs cinematic footage of a young woman exploring her lover’s body with a rhythmic, poetic voiceover, he says: “I love that what can constitute a woman’s world comes slightly unhinged here.” Sliding two steps to the right, where Jamal’s work is installed, Alzaid adds: “He’s taking on nostalgia and displacement without making it saccharine, only about loss.”
Featuring the works of six artists who are originally from Lebanon, Kuwait and Iran, and who are now living in Beirut, New York, Berlin, Tokyo and Tehran, the show has a curiously unassuming international reach, in part because the pieces themselves are so intimate and intense. Each pulls the viewer in to scrutinize a body, a face or a group of men – particularly in the video “Yelwa” by Fatima al-Qadiri and Lyndsy Welgos.
“Yelwa” takes a traditional Kuwaiti marriage rite, for which a bride is surrounded by an enclosure of women, and switches up the cast of characters without altering their roles (a man sits in the bride’s seat, resplendent beneath billowing fabrics).
Just as “Yelwa” is more mesmeric than pedantic on issues of gender construction and sexual orientation, “Tragedy of the Self,” by Monira al-Qadiri (Fatima’s sister), takes a work about beauty and narcissism in surprising new directions.
In a diminutive video installation and a related series of six photographs – embellished with gold leaf and arranged in a circle like the positions on a wall clock – the piece is inspired by Qajar conventions of portraiture, and shows the artist’s face, heavily made up, with finely drawn facial hair on her brow, lip and chin. The force of her expressions – pained, melancholic, preening – amplifies the androgyny of the work, which appears more confident than confused about its intermingling of genders.
All of this is quite far from the veils, vixens, martyrs and victims that have become the dominant memes for representing men and women from the Middle East, either in the mainstream Western media or the region’s own popular culture.
“Antinormanybody,” with its titular mash-up of words, complicates things nicely with evocations of desire, scandal, subversion, poetry, convoluted local politics and hazily remembered personal histories. Certainly, there are issues related to gay rights, gender equity and sexual agency rumbling beneath the surface, but they are more experiential than activist, and the show never skimps on tenderness or sensuality for the sake of taking a clear political position.
In many ways, the exhibition also epitomizes the ethos of the project space – small, daring, unexpected, an opportunity to showcase young artists who are not overly famous. Supported by two institutions – Arte East and the International Resource Network, based out of the City University of New York’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies – “Antinormanybody” nonetheless plays on the kind of rugged, ramshackle turf that is decidedly removed from institutional or establishment ways of thinking.
Named for the Greek muse of history, Kleio Projects is a labor of love, directed by Christine O’Heron, a one-time Beiruti who worked at the gallery Espace SD in Gemmayzeh before it closed in 2007. The space is explicitly devoted to contemporary art from the Middle East – previous shows featured the work of Tanya Traboulsi, Wafaa Bilal and Marwan Nahleh – but it also supports a young generation of resolutely New York painters.
“When the economy tanked, it just made sense,” says O’Heron, kitted out in a pink shirt and a black-lace tutu. “I thought, I could do a degree in curatorial studies, or I could take the savings I would have put toward that and do this instead. I’ve learned a lot,” she adds. “I can hang a show like there’s no tomorrow.”
For Alzaid, the exhibition was a different kind of challenge. “I hadn’t had a great deal of interest in curating until I realized how you can weave meaning into art through curatorial work.”
After “Antinormanybody” closes Wednesday, he says he hopes he can take it the exhibition elsewhere and expand it at the same time. “There was a lot of work that didn’t fit in the space. This is a tightly knit, self-contained show. But I would like to put these works in dialogue with others – by these same artists and by others who could help me rethink some of the terms of this exhibition.”
“Antinormanybody” is on view at Kleio Projects in New York through Aug. 10. For more information, please visit www.arteeast.org.