A New Art Gallery Wants to Teach Americans About the Middle East

Middle East

The Middle East Institute Gallery’s first exhibition examines upheaval with resilience and humor.

07Hassan Hajjaj2000“Saida in Blue” by Hassan Hajjaj, 2000

On Saturday, Sept. 14, the Middle East Institute will open its own art gallery with a show, Arabicity | Ourouba, featuring a diverse group of contemporary works from 17 Middle Eastern artists which examine what it means to be Arab today.

The nonpartisan Dupont Circle think tank, founded in 1946, focuses on providing analysis and expertise on the region for U.S. policymakers and encourages greater understanding of the Middle East among Americans. It offers the public language classes, regional studies courses, and a robust library. Now, it’s adding an art gallery to its public offerings. 

“We felt we couldn’t talk about the region here in Washington without acknowledging the important role that culture is playing in today’s societies in the region,” says Kate Seelye, MEI’s vice president, who focuses on communications, outreach, and arts and culture. Making thought-provoking contemporary art available to the public underscores MEI’s belief that creative work can challenge stereotypes and reductive thinking—especially because art is a universal language, Seelye says. “This really is a unique platform for us to engage with new audiences who have never been exposed to the voices of Arab artists, or never been interested in the Middle East, or just simply don’t know anything about it, or if they do, they have a negative perception of the Middle East,” she says.

The new gallery, which takes up much of the main floor in the recently renovated MEI headquarters, has been in the works for a long time. Before welcoming its own gallery space, MEI was organizing and curating shows across D.C. in venues like the National Building Museum and American University’s Katzen Arts Center. Recent renovations to MEI’s headquarters, a historic Dupont building, made space for the organization to host its own shows.

The gallery will focus  on contemporary art in the Middle East, which the institute defines as the region stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan, including North Africa, the Gulf states, and Asia, and hopes to show four to five exhibitions per year featuring artists from across the whole region.

Its inaugural exhibition evolved from Ourouba, a show that celebrated London-based curator Rose Issa, known for championing Arab and Iranian art and film, put on two years ago at the Beirut Art Fair. The name is an Arabic word—translated by Issa as “Arabicity”—that describes “the state of being Arab,” according to Seelye. Issa is “a star” in the curatorial world, Seelye says, who had been on her radar for a while. After seeing her work on Ourouba, MEI reached out to gauge her interest in curating a similar show for their new gallery space. “We are a think tank working on Middle East issues, issues of history, memory, identity, loss, injustice, oppression,” Seelye says. Ourouba was concerned with those same issues, “so we thought, ‘What a perfect fit,’” she says.

Issa decided to specifically focus Arabicity | Ourouba on work by artists from territories experiencing violence and turmoil, not just artists from the Gulf states. “What we notice is that there are fantastic Palestinian artists, fantastic Iranian artists, excellent Iraqi or Syrian or Lebanese artists because they have been through wars, loss—they have something to say,” Issa explains. Anas Albraehe, for example, was born in Syria and relocated to Lebanon when war broke out. Albraehe’s oil painting of a sleeping man, “Untitled,” is featured in the exhibition. It comes from the series Dream Catcher, in which Albraehe depicts laborers and those displaced by war in the escape of sleep.

She also wanted to focus specifically on contemporary art that could speak to the last decade. “The last 10 years have been what some people call the Arab Spring. In reality, it’s just sort of upheaval,” Issa says. “People were thinking they were doing a revolution. In fact, many things were destroyed, wars continue, Syria was invaded. So I wanted to know: What do collectors in Arab countries like Lebanon buy during troubled times? What are the concerns, whether conceptually, aesthetically, or sociopolitically, of artists from our parts of the world?”

But Arabicity | Ourouba’s themes aren’t just death and destruction. Instead, it’s a meditation on the kind of work that’s made during periods of violence and unrest, including the joy and the resilience found in the middle of it. Too often, the story of life in the Middle East is told and controlled by outsiders, she says. “I want the vision of the Arabs by Arabs,” Issa says. “Maybe there is war, but there is also resilience. There is life. There are weddings, there is joy.”

And the works incorporate a lot of humor: Palestinian artist Sharif Waked’s “Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints” is a video work depicting a mock fashion show that features models in clothing designed to suit Israeli checkpoints—Issa calls it “fantastically funny.” Moroccan-born, UK-based artist Hassan Hajjaj photographs people in Marrakech, Morocco, (often friends or longtime acquaintances) wearing Western logos, like the knock-off Louis Vuitton in his piece “Saida in Blue.” The piece says, in Issa’s words, “They too can afford fashion. And they too can be laughing and having fun and living their life even though they’re poor. It’s not the privilege of the rich to be fashionable or to have labels.”

In addition to stretching across nations, the exhibition spans genres: The artists use installation, video, and other media. There are paintings, photographs, and selections of sculpture on display. “They do everything,” Issa says.

To help explain why she’s so interested in art made during times of conflict, Issa quotes a scene from the 1949 film The Third Man. In its famous monologue, Orson Welles’ character says “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

War suppresses art, she acknowledges, and it makes all aspects of life harder, but it can’t repress creativity. “We lose a lot of monuments, it’s true,” she says. “They get ripped off, and they end up in some collections. But you cannot kill the artist. You cannot kill poetry. You cannot kill the urge of people to want to say something.”


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