BEIRUT: Last week Lebanese artist Raed Yassine raised the specter of 9/11, using the infamous attack on the World Trade Center as the source of a piece of artwork. In collaboration with Beirut-based curator Rasha Salti, Yassine dreamt up an “impossible” restaging of 9/11, substituting the Twin Towers with a reproduction of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
The 9/11 attack, which British artist Damien Hirst described as “visually stunning” and “an artwork in its own right,” has proven an unlikely source of creative inspiration, and a number of international artists have produced pieces tackling the attack and its messy legacy on Arab-American relations.
“War and Other Impossible Possibilities: Thoughts of Arab History and Contemporary Art,” by art historian Gregory Buchakjian, explores and analyzes some of the artworks produced in the region before 9/11 and since the attacks ignited “Islamophobia” in the U.S.
Based on a private collection, a joint venture between Lebanese art dealer and gallerist Saleh Barakat and art-loving Qatari statesman Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Saud al-Thani, the book showcases an interesting and unusual selection of works, situating them within a historical, social and political context.
In his introduction, Barakat suggests that although U.S. responses to the 9/11 attack are well-documented, the Arab perception of events is still relatively unexplored. This collection, he says, is a corrective, as “art remains surely one of the most authentic and sincere representation[s] of those mass opinions.”
The project’s grandiose ambitions might well have given rise to a dry tome, littered with political theory and academic analysis. Happily, Buchakjian’s prose is clear and engaging, and includes an astute mixture of cross-cultural references, insight from the artists, critical analysis, quotes from popular culture and the author’s own thoughts.
Buchakjian begins by suggesting that the 9/11 attacks constitute the true beginning of the 21st century, having divided the world into two categories, “civilized” and “barbarian.” He summarizes key moments in regional history, listing the “impressive number” of military conflicts in the region since Palestine’s 1948 Nakba. By 2012 that number stood at 34, more than one every other year.
Before taking up 9/11, the author provides examples of Arab artwork inspired by such conflicts – Araf Rayess’ chilling 1960 oil painting “The Algerian Revolution,” for instance, and Mona Hatoum’s “Present Tense,” a map of post-Oslo Palestine, made of bars of Nabulsi Soap. He also notes the page headers in Bidoun magazine’s summer 2011 issue, which together form a sort of poetic refrain:
“Egypt is not Tunisia. Egypt is not Libya. Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia. Why Egypt is not Tunisia. Egypt is not Tunisia but ... Tunisia is not Libya, which is not Bahrain,” and so on.
So situated within an art-historical context, works specifically related to 9/11, Arab-American relations and the “War on Terror” constitute most of the book, beginning with Saad Ghosn’s powerful 2007 woodcut, “We will conquer We will rule.”
The black-and-white print shows an enormous military boot stamping on a sea of disembodied heads. Those below the boot, which have yet to be crushed, bear unique expressions, some frightened, some sad, some seeming resigned to their fate. Above the sole of the boot, on which are written short phrases separated by a star – “New world order/ Fire power/ We will conquer we will rule/ With us or against us” – is a sea of uniform skulls.
Moroccan artist Munir Fatmi’s “Save Manhattan” series is more directly linked to New York, consisting of objects grouped so that their shadows recreate the city’s world famous skyline – Twin Towers included.
His installations are comprised of various items. One is a collection of books published after 9/11, with two enormous Qurans in the place of the destroyed towers. Another is a series of 90 speakers arranged into miniature skyscrapers and reproducing sounds recorded on the New York streets.
Sudanese artist Hasan Musa’s “St George” series of embroideries comment on the Anglo-U.S. invasion of Iraq. In the work “St George slays the dragon and the Museum of Baghdad II,” Mickey Mouse is depicted on horseback clutching a spear, against a backdrop of the American flag. “St George slays the dragon and international food aid” finds a knight swinging wildly at airborne vegetables.
Particularly interesting in the context of perceived “terrorist” threats is a section on Palestinian artist Emily Jacir. Buchakjian cites Jacir’s superbly subversive “Sexy Semite,” which aims both to criticize the frequent misuse of the word “Semitic” to refer to Jewish people alone (when Arabs are also among the Semitic-speaking peoples) and to champion the right of return.
Jacir asked Palestinians to take out personal ads in New York’s “Village Voice,” seeking an Israeli partner as a way to facilitate an otherwise impossible journey home. Examples include: “You stole the land. May as well take the women. Redheaded Palestinian ready to be colonized by your army” and “100% Semite and Palestinian. Total knockout. Seeking Jewish Male, any race, to tour my homeland.”
The reaction to the piece was perhaps more illuminating than the exercise itself – the third time that Jacir executed the work, the ads were characterized as a terrorist threat by local media and a spokesman for the Israeli consulate described the work as “guerilla warfare.”
Buchakjian’s informative, often amusingly satirical, text is supplemented by the book’s stylish layout and comprehensive collection of images, which ensure that the artwork under discussion is displayed to advantage. Photographs of the larger pieces appear at the back of the book, so as to afford them maximum space and impact.
Buchakjian doesn’t reach any definitive conclusion about the overall Arab position vis-a-vis 9/11. He concludes that violence plays a central role not only in regional history and politics but in artistic production as well. Given turbulent regional history, he suggests, it’s not surprising that many works have a macabre bent.
An unusual and insightful selection of works from some of the region’s most interesting (though not necessarily best-known) artists is effectively united in this thought-provoking book. Meandering gently from New York to the Middle East and back again, it traverses fascinating territory along the way.
“War and Other Impossible Possibilities: Thoughts on Arab History and Contemporary Art,” by Gregory Buchakjian, is published by Alarm Editions and is available from Downtown’s Librairie El Bourj and other local retailers.