But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Acquiring Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa
by Sara Raza
In 2016 I was invited as the third and final curator of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative for the Middle East and North Africa. The project aimed to diversify the Guggenheim Museum’s holdings, with the previous two chapters involving curators and artists from South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Prior to the project, the Guggenheim’s American collection was lacking in global art, in particular from these three regions, so the project aimed to build a critical art historical aggregate about the global south that spoke to the museum’s principles of collecting. It resulted in over 125 new acquisitions from those regions underrepresented in the Guggenheim’s collection.
Before I began to acquire works for the museum, I examined the works that already resided in its collection. I aimed to acquire more than one piece by an individual artist to encourage more of their works to enter the collection after my tenure, and to build history and legacy. This project was not designed to showcase the “top of the pops,” and because it was a collection-building exercise, my decision-making process was invested in sustainability and in reflecting on art history’s relationship to the art of our time.
Based on the collection-building objective, I composed the exhibition But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise. It focused on the conceptual application of geometries to create a non-didactic ideas-driven narrative, rather than one informed by geographical myths. As a curator and art historian invested in art practices that identify with the places and spaces connected to the greater Middle East, I wanted to evade stereotypical curatorial approaches to geographically-specific exhibitions. I used geometry to unpack two distinct areas of spatial studies: mental space, which relates to mathematics and logic, and real, actual geographical space. This paved the way for a thematic and curatorial exploration of the colonial structures that were established during the formation of the modern world, and addressed their impact on the Middle East and North Africa regions.
Through the deconstruction of several nonlinear histories and practices, I presented a diverse cohort of artists who deflected reductive analyses. Instead, their works and ideas probed the semiotics of visual and cultural exchange by directly confronting the paired ideas of place and space to delineate the value of previously hidden currencies, and embodied several urgent and overlapping issues within their work. I was interested in suggesting alternative readings of some of the complex global histories that underpin contemporary art from the greater Middle East by exploring the capacity of geometry to embrace and illuminate many other fields of enquiry. I was also interested in teasing out transcultural ideas that connected the museum and its architect Frank Lloyd Wright with his engagements in Iraq during the 1950s as part of Baghdad’s modernization plan under the Hashemite King. The monarchy was overthrown in 1958 by a military coup d’état, and the kingdom, along with Lloyd Wright’s designs, soon collapsed, but some of those designs were later incorporated into the Guggenheim’s building on Fifth Avenue.
An important theoretical source for this exhibition was Jacques Derrida’s 1962 essay “Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction,” in which Derrida drew from the central thesis of mathematician and phenomenologist Husserl’s core argument for the “return to origins,” which he believed was closely associated with geometry. Curatorially, geometry functioned as a form of logical “truth,” which transferred to the exhibition context where 18 artworks by 17 artists, on view in New York, provided myriad avenues into what constitutes the real. By tracing these multiple avenues, the exhibition aimed to reactivate narratives surrounding origins. It aimed to dispel misleading programs of truth, namely those that existed within the 21st century orientalist imagination. Key areas of focus included ideologies of architecture and how they have been used as a tool in the making and reshaping of the modern Middle East, and the migration of people and ideas.
A salient artwork that married these themes was a series by Abbas Akhavan entitled Study for a Monument (2013–). Within this work, Akhavan renders a species of plants native to the Tigris and Euphrates river system of ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) in bronze. Arranged on bed sheets, these charred-looking objects exploit the symbolism of power and status. Bypassing the human form to focus instead on oral anatomy, the artist has replaced the anticipated regality of bronze with something altogether uncanny. This suggests several overlapping readings of the work: it may be registered as an index of the effects of environmental disaster, as a makeshift roadside memorial, or even as a display of illicit finds. But whichever specific interpretation we favour, what is most important and lasting in the work is its enmeshing in a broader political struggle.
To grapple with the complex histories of the greater Middle East and its constructed cartographic narrative, it was essential to dispel Orientalist and exotic myths associated with the region, which Edward Said described in his canonical text Orientalism (1978) as a program of Western exploitation. The exhibition’s design was based on a fragmented jigsaw puzzle. It was a metaphor for the dual regions of West Asia and North Africa, both of which encountered (with the exception of Iran and Turkey) some form of physical Western occupation during the 18th and 19th centuries after the decline of the Ottoman empire, paving the way for Britain and Europe to carve out their territory and exploit their newly-discovered colonies’ resources.
Attempting to probe the physical and conceptual cannibalism of the region, French-born artist Kader Attia’s practice served as a necessary anchor that aimed to resolve the spatial conundrums of the region’s colonial past through the dissection of architecture. Attia’s study of the vernacular architecture of his family’s native Algeria, which was colonized by the French in the 19th century, is presented within Untitled (Ghardaïa) (2009), a sculpture of the 11th-century ancient city of Ghardaia, from the Mzab region, constructed from couscous. The epic piece explores the colonial legacy of French architects in Algeria, particularly citing Le Corbusier’s and Fernand Pouillon’s roles in the 20th century as frequent “borrowers” of Algeria’s indigenous architectural tropes. Prints of their portraits overlook the installation. By reducing an entire city or heritage to couscous, Attia wittily invites the architects to dine, while mocking their lack of proper acknowledgment of the source of their work.
Another key component of this exhibition was to highlight the critical role of contraband, to consider the term as a possibility for unearthing origins in cartography and heritage. An example was Tunisian-born artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s Flying Carpets (2011), a suspended installation made from gridded stainless-steel frames hung by elastic threads. The piece poetically explored the increasing cases of illegal migration from Africa to Europe following the Arab Spring, whereby young men are “smuggled” across the Mediterranean and seduced by the promise of economic prosperity, eventually arriving in places such as the port of Venice, where this work was conceived. Traveling in confined containers and boats, their journeys are contrary to the exotic flying carpet rides that were made popular in 18th- and 19th-century Orientalist literature. To research the piece, Kaabi-Linke spent eight days observing immigrant street hawkers in Venice who sell counterfeit goods on rugs that can be easily bundled up should the authorities arrive. She measured the carpets, and the Ponte del Sepolcro bridge where these traders congregated, and took imprints of their rugs on the bridge. The light and airy feel of this sculptural installation is contrasted by its cage-like resemblance, which casts intricate geometric shadows on the gallery’s walls, alluding to the idea of geometric consciousness and reverting back to the exhibition’s central theme.
But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise occupied a philosophical realm where spatiality and human consciousness interlaced. I designed it to raise a wider dialogue about local and global histories and re-histories, and to move towards shifting centres and peripheries, which are essential objectives in my curatorial practice. Mapping these multiple entry points into a collection-based exhibition allows the art works acquired through it to be re-contextualized in future exhibitions, as part of the institution’s permanent legacy, and as part of a larger matrix.