‘Arab artist’ deemed dangerous and inhibitive label

BEIRUT: The Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris has proven an important venue for the international exposure of artists from Lebanon and around the region.

The IMA is celebrating its 25th birthday this year with a show entitled “Contemporary Art: 25 Years of Arab Creativity.” The exhibition includes work by 40 artists from across 22 countries – among them several local heroes, including Nadim Karam and Ayman Baalbaki – and is accompanied by a series of conferences and roundtables.

The institute’s director, Mona Khazindar, led a roundtable discussion in Beirut Monday night, at Residence Les Pins, on the theme of “Contemporary Art and the IMA.” Participants included local curators, gallerists, professors, journalists and artists, among them painter Ayman Baalbaki, photographer Gilbert Hage, curator and owner of Galerie Janine Rubeiz Nadine Begdache, the French cultural attache and director of the French Institute Aurelien Lechevallier and representatives of the Beirut Art Center and the Beirut Exhibition Center.

The event opened with a short presentation by Khazindar, who outlined her decision to mark the institute’s 25th year with an exhibition of contemporary art.

She explained that given the inauguration in September of the Louvre’s department of Islamic art, and the imminent opening of an Institute of Islamic Studies in Paris, “the IMA must reinforce and define its specificity to make sure of its place on the Parisian cultural scene.”

Khazindar noted that over the past 25 years the IMA has held more than 100 exhibitions of Arab art, music and film. She believes the institute plays a key role in offering a platform for contemporary Arab art in France, though – in contrast to the Louvre’s chronological display of Islamic art – the IMA’s thematically arranged exhibition is not linked to religion, suggesting that good work, rather than the artists’ heritage, is the main curatorial principle at work.

The presentation was followed by a discussion which ranged from the IMA’s policies and attitudes toward art and artists, to their program of events and the extent to which the institute is able to enter into reciprocal arrangements with this region’s art institutions.

A remark by Khazindar that the IMA does not display artwork deemed provocative led to a lively debate. The director ended by clarifying that while the IMA is happy to display work which may spark debate – citing last summer’s controversial exhibition, “The Body Revealed,” an exploration of the role of the human body in Arab art – they try to keep local viewers in mind and steer clear of sensitive topics such as religion and the veil.

The main debate of the night centered on the connotations of labeling art as coming from the “Arab world,” which some felt risks appearing to exclude Arab artists living abroad, as well as artists in countries such as Iran. It was also argued that labeling an artist as Arab in a country such as France, which faces problems with the ghettoization of its Arab population, could inadvertently reinforce racial barriers.

Several speakers argued that artists should be celebrated for their talent, irrespective of their ethnicity, expressing concern that the label “Arab artists” is dangerous as it creates a barrier between these artists and universal recognition.

One speaker suggested abandoning the term “Arab artists” in place of “artists in the Arab world,” to ensure the emphasis is placed on people’s identity as artists, rather than their nationality.

Given the complexity of the issues raised, few could be resolved here, yet Khazindar’s presence provided an opportunity to hear how the views of key figures on the Lebanese art scene compare and contrast with those of one of the world’s most important international platforms for the region’s artists.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 22, 2012, on page 16.




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