The start-date is important. By 1990, the high, utopian years of the post-colonial Pan-Arab Movement — when a united “Arab world” seemed possible — were long over. Sustained political conflict had set in. While 1990 may have seen the end of Lebanon’s lacerating 15-year civil war, it also saw, with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the beginning of the first gulf war.
But while the show positions itself on the threshold of a spectacularly tumultuous era, it approaches that era through notably low-key art, work that relies for its effects more on information delivery than on visual punch. This is true of the earliest piece, a modest-sized linocut print by the Kuwaiti artist Thuraya al-Baqsami. Done entirely in blue and white, it’s a rough-cut image of two tense, alert faces, one male, one female, set above the Arabic phrase “No to the Invasion.”
The history of the piece is precise. Ms. Al-Baqsami made the original print on Aug. 5, 1990, three days after Saddam Hussein’s army had entered Kuwait. She intended it as a protest poster, a raised fist, and for a short time it was widely reproduced and distributed throughout Kuwait City. Soon the Iraqi Army began executing protesters in the street. Poster production stopped. The artist had to hide the printing plate.
To learn all this, the full story of what you’re looking at, you have to take time to read the exhibition label. Once you do, the work comes into vivid focus, conceptually and visually. This is true with most of what’s here. You can enjoy Khaldoun Chichakli’s small ink drawings for the lovely things they are. But they take on a sharper character when you know that they were done when the artist was living in Europe, beginning in 1979, and homesick for his native Damascus. In the drawings, he revisited the city, one remembered storefront at a time, even as urbanization, then war, were taking their toll.
The filter of memory gives Mr. Chichakli’s pictures the storybook look of a world that admits no disturbance. A comparable spirit, a kind of programmed innocence, was a feature of modernism everywhere, including the Middle East. That spirit, buried and forgotten under darker histories, has been revived in an installation by the Beirut artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige focusing on the Lebanese Rocket Society, a 1960s student science project that was designated — what a concept! — Lebanon’s official space program, and honored with a commemorative postal stamp and souvenir carpets.
An installation by the United States-born, Beirut-based Marwa Arsanios looks back to a modernist space-age fantasy, but one that has unraveled. Through documentary material and an architectural model, Ms. Arsanios revisits a flying saucer-shaped 1950s beach chalet at an upscale Beirut resort. In snapshots and home movies we meet its original affluent owners, tanned, smiling, lounging nearby. In recent photos, we see the chalet again; the old E.T. design is semi-intact, but the house is now a cramped four-family dwelling occupied by refugees from southern Lebanon.
Ms. Arsanios’s work balances on a thin line between past and present. Work by other artists is fully in the now, or near-now. A shelf lined with small painted ceramic figures by the Cairo-based Moataz Nasr portrays participants in the 2012 Tahrir Square demonstrations in photographic detail. A multi-image screen-print by the Lebanese artist Ali Cherri is a stop-time sequence of a body blazing like a torch. In the context of this history-conscious show, it instantly evokes the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in 2010 sparked a revolution, and the subsequent, and continuing Arab Spring.
Not everything in the show needs to be filtered through commentary. A multilayered video by Akram Zaatari, a Lebanese filmmaker, starts out as an interview — invaluable in itself — with the great Cairo portrait photographer Levon Boyadjian, who called himself Van Leo (1921-2002). But interspersed with it is a second, fictional narrative, in which the interviewer tries to track down the story of his own grandmother who, he is discovering, worked as a nude studio model when she was young.
Mr. Zaatari’s video — “ Her and Him” — is an exhibition highlight. Another is a video by Maha Maamoun, a funny, feature-length shout-out to the Great Pyramid of Giza. Yet another is a pair of 1993 photographs, excerpted from a larger set, in which the Emirati conceptualist Mohammed Kazem is seen exploring the everyday world around him, not with his hands or his eyes, but with his tongue.
And it’s worth lingering in a second, satellite show called “No to the Invasion: The Archive,” organized by Tarek El-Ariss, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College, and Ms. Kabra. The engrossing array of Arab-language magazines, novels, cartoons, and film clips they’ve assembled illustrates a theme: the gradual change, traced in popular imagery over the last half-century, of what they call the “Arab body” from wholeness to fragmentation. The latest evidence is a series of tweeted selfie close-ups of wounds incurred by the Egyptian journalist and human rights activist Wael Abbas in an encounter with police.
For some visitors this display will be just more than they want to know. Me, I happen to be an information geek, and was glad to have Mr. El-Ariss and Ms. Kabra organize so much of it in so stimulating a way.
If the Bard exhibition has a serious flaw, it’s not its Middle Eastern-ness, but its particular kind of internationalism: it too closely reflects the global art market. A problem with creating a show entirely from one private collection — quite apart from the ethics of institutionally promoting potentially resalable art — is that you have to work with what’s there, and the Barjeel collection, on the evidence here, is not an especially imaginative one. A significant number of the artists at Bard were also in two large recent New York surveys of contemporary art from the Middle East, one at the New Museum in 2014, the other at the Guggenheim Museum last year.
If typecasting through ethnicity holds artists back from making the kind of work they want, narrowing the market — and collections and exhibitions — to a few names is even more restrictive. It means that most of whatever is made, won’t get shown. And there are just too many interesting artists out there, in the Middle East and beyond it, whose mind-opening work, in a repressive time, we need to see.
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