“Re: Orient” – Sharjah Exhibition explores the limits of political and social boundaries, past and present.

Dennis Sammut has been to Sharjah for the opening of the exhibition Re: Orient, an on-going political and social conversation through art.

The United Arab Emirates is not exactly a hotbed of political intrigue. Despite the fact that several dozen people are currently on trial for anti-State activities, most citizens prefer to concentrate their efforts on business and making money, and the government prefers it like that too. Dubai may have replaced Beirut as the playground of the Arab world, but the model was distinctly sanitised of political content.

The world or Art and Culture however offers an opaque space where ideas contrast and blend, and where political orthodoxy can often be challenged safely. The Emirate of Sharjah, is neither the richest nor the largest of the seven emirates that form the UAE, yet it has managed to retain its distinct flavour, with an underlying hankering back to the glory days of the Qawassim State which was the regional power in the early 19th century, until the arrival of the British distorted the equilibrium. The British never liked the Qawassim very much, and the feeling was mutual. On an occasion or two in the 1950s and the 1960s Arab nationalism raised its head, much to the disquiet of the British who were until then, the “protecting power”, but the moment was short-lived. Arab nationalism never quite recovered from the six day war and the death of Nasser soon after. What came later were distorted versions that never made the mark. Yet one can still find in Sharjah pockets of romantic Arab nationalism, devoid now of any political significance.

The opening in Sharjah on 11 March of an Exhibition entitled “Re:Orient, Investigating Modernism in the Arab World 1950s-70s” was therefore an event not to be missed. Organised by the Barjeel Art Foundation, the artistic arm of the indefatigable Sultan Sooud al Qassemi – art collector, blogger and astute young political commentator, whose tweets and Facebook entries are followed by thousands throughout the Arab world and beyond, the exhibition captures through the paintings of the artists a special moment in the Arab region. As Mandy Marzaban of the Barjeel Foundation writes in the exhibition’s catalogue “Art making often connects subjective experiences with the prevailing socio-political and cultural circumstances, and modernism in the Arab world epitomised a dynamic exchange of ideas. Modern-era artists with roots in Arab countries fused traditional approaches, re-appropriated ancient symbolism, and employed Western avant-garde styles such as Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism and Dadaism to comment on daily life politics and existential concerns.”

As you walk past the paintings of the 28 artists on exhibit you could almost sense the electrifying atmosphere in the post-colonial Middle East in the 1950s and the 1960s which provided the backdrop to the lives of these artists who were in this time mostly in their youth. You can almost imagine them painting, probably with one of the millions of cheap transistor radios that had flooded the region at the time blaring in the background the romantic songs of Umm Kulthum, alternating with the vitriolic anti-imperialist messages from the strong transmitters of Cairo’s “Voice of the Arabs”, and with each stroke of their brush asserting the “modern” orient that challenges the “Orientalist” imagery with which the “west” had painted the “east”.

We are told that the name of the exhibition starts with the prefix “Re:” the symbol that in the present internet age we associate with a reply to an original message, because it represents an “on-going, open ended dialogue about past and present notions of otherness and the contrived categories that trap artists in narrow interpretations of identity and politics. Re-Orient is a conversation, persisting to this day, about the development of art in the 30 year period. As research of modern art in the Arab world evolves, the inherent nuances and guiding paradigms for modernity are continuously reviewed, replenished and reoriented.”

The exhibition does not contain political art, even if there is a subtle political message in many of the paintings. Some of the artists on exhibit were eventually co-opted to state sponsored art projects in countries like Iraq and Syria where the Baathist regimes became sensitive to the power of art in politics. Perhaps it is too early, perhaps it is too painful yet, but the prospect of an exhibition of Arab political art in the future is intriguing. As with Soviet political art, which is becoming fashionable, the naivety of its message and the glorification of this or that person or party cause also captures a reality, imagined or otherwise, of that particular moment. Perhaps a challenge for the Barjeel Art Foundation, to take up in the future.

The exhibition Re: Orient – Investigating Modernism in the Arab World 1950s-70s is open at the Barjeel Art Foundation on Level Two at the Maraya Art Centre in the Al Qasba District in Sharjah, UAE from 11 March 2013 till 22 November 2013. It is not to be missed.

The exhibition features work by the following artists:

Chafic Abboud, Ragheb Ayad, Dia al Azzawi, Ahmed Cherkaoui, Nassir Choura, Hafidh al Drouibi, Ismail Fattah, Abdel Kader Guermaz, Paul Guiragossian, Kadhim Haidar, Adam Heinein, Naim Ismail, Saadi al Kaabi, Louay Kayyali, Mohammed Kadda, Ismail al Khayat, Fateh al Moudarees, Ahmed Moustafa, Abdallah al Qassar, Abdul-Halim Radwi, Samir Rafi, Nouri al Rawi, Issam al Said, Shakir Hassan al Said, Walid al Shami, Gazbya Sirry, Seif Wanly, Nashat al Zuabby.

Dennis Sammut is a member of St Peter’s College at the University of Oxford. He may be contacted at dennis.sammut@spc.ox.ac.uk