Monday, February 09, 2009

mideast cultural happenings in london

'Ghost' 2007 by Kader Attia; Aluminium foil; Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London; ©Kader Attia, 2009

London serves up a lively menu of Mideast culture

Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette 9 Feb 2009

Among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Britain during the Israeli assault on Gaza were artists from different disciplines. Artists were also active as speakers at rallies and marches, and many signed petitions and letters to the media on Gaza.

Some writers and musicians wrote Gaza-related poems and songs, which are circulating over the internet. Caryl Churchill, a leading playwright, wrote the short play “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza”. The ten-minute play started its debut two-week run last Friday at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, central London. Admission is free, and after each performance there is a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).

Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke, the play’s director, told the Guardian newspaper that he hopes audiences “will be provoked, that they'll be made to think about the historical circumstances that have led us to the situation in the Middle East."

The play will be available for download after its initial run. Anyone will be free to perform the play without needing to acquire the rights, as long as the performance includes a collection for the Palestinians.

Churchill’s play is one of several high-profile cultural happenings in London that reflect the appetite of audiences to know more about the Mideast through art at a time when the region is constantly in the news. These happenings include the play “Plonter”, performed at the Barbican Centre’s Pit Theatre by the Cameri company of Israeli Arab and Jewish actors. “Plonter” [pictured, credit Gadi Dagon]was first presented at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre in 2005. Developed by the actors over a period of six months, it takes the form of a dozen or so episodes dramatizing the surreal absurdities in which individuals on both sides live. The play’s title is Hebrew for “tangle” or “mess”.

In one sketch, bus passengers are nervous that a Palestinian man is a suicide bomber. In another, a separation wall is built through a Palestinian home, meaning that the family has to pass through a checkpoint to reach the bathroom. At the entrance to the theatre members of the audience have to pass through a “checkpoint” manned by actors dressed as armed Israeli soldiers demanding to be shown ID.

The impact of Mideast violence on the work of visual artists is evident at the exhibition “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East” running at the Saatchi Gallery until early May. The human cost of war finds vigorous expression in the paintings of Berlin-based Iraqi artist Ahmed Alsoudani. His subjects include suicide bombings and torture, and some of his vivid paintings symbolize bodies torn asunder by explosions.

There is a huge buzz around the Saatchi show and the daring, provocative works it has brought to the British capital. The countries of origin of the 21 artists represented include Iraq, Iran, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Algeria. More than half of the artists are Iranian, and critics have expressed amazement at their often subversive and taboo-busting work, especially given Iran’s grim political image.

The gallery’s founder Charles Saatchi is particularly known for his championing of Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. His exhibition of Mideast artists is likely to give a powerful boost to the careers of the exhibited artists and to the Mideast art market in general.

The current widespread concern over the fate of the Palestinian people has generated much interest in ‘Qalandia 2067’, an installation by Palestinian artist Wafa Hourani. ‘Qalandia 2067’ is named after a refugee camp near Ramallah, next to the notorious Qalandia Israeli checkpoint. In a series of five models Hourani envisages Qalandia in the year 2067, 100 years after the 1967 war. He has created a miniature refugee camp, together with a wall on the other side of which is an Israeli nightclub. Hourani told BBC TV’s Newsnight Review that he feels “responsible somehow to work and present the image of Palestine for the world ... I believe in art and I believe it is more strong than any weapon.”

The American novelist Lionel Shriver, a critic for Newsnight Review, found ‘Qalandia 2067’ to be “charming – I’d even call it adorable, with some embarrassment.” The idea of it was intrinsically heavy-handed, but “the execution is so playful and so light and so cute that I think it works.”
'Beirut Caoutchouc' 2004-2008; engraved rubber; courtesty Saatchi Gallery, London; ©Marwan Rechmaoui, 2009
The built environment features in several works on display. In his installation ‘Spectre’, Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui presents an exact replica of the Beirut apartment block he lived in before it was abandoned in 2006 during Israeli attacks on the city. He sees the building and its 1,500 tenants as a microcosm of Lebanese society. “In a normal situation they live as neighbors but the moment a conflict starts a lot of problems start happening in this building”. Another of his works, ‘Beirut Caoutchouc’, expresses the divisions of the city in the form of a large rubber floor mat of Beirut embossed with details of roads and neighborhoods.

The Syrian-American artist Diana Al-Hadid explores the interaction of politics and architecture through her big, sometimes collapsed, sculptures based on towers. Her inspirations range from the Tower of Babel to the World Trade Center.

Two of the themes running through the show are gender and faith. ‘Ghost’ by Paris-based Kader Attia, who is of Algerian origin, consists of a roomful of rows of kneeling aluminum foil figures representing Muslim women at prayer. Photographer Shadi Ghadirian investigates the position of women in Iran through witty portrayals of the female relationship with domestic objects. Shirin Fakhim pushes boundaries to an extreme with her life-sized dolls representing Tehran prostitutes.

The ranks of Young British Artists include the Chapman Brothers, Jake and Dinos. The Iranian art world has the Haerizadeh brothers, both of whom are participants in the exhibition. Unlike the Chapman Brothers, however, their works are not jointly executed. Rokni Haerizadeh’s appealing large-scale satirical paintings carry titles such as ‘Typical Iranian Wedding’, ‘Typical Iranian Funeral’, and ‘Shomal, Beach at the Caspian’. The manipulated photographs by his brother Ramin explore the body while being influenced by elements of traditional Persian culture.

At Le Violon Bleu contemporary art gallery in the Mayfair district of London there is until the end of February an exhibition of work by four women photographers from Palestine and its diaspora: Sama Alshaibi, Anisa Ashkar, Rana Bishara and Rula Halawani [image: Tribute to Van Gogh by Anisa Ashkar]. The exhibition’s title, ‘Aperture 27,000’, refers to the 27,000-square-kilometre land mass of historic Palestine. The photographers raise questions of displacement, loss and identity, and their connection to occupied Palestine and Israel. [image: Olives from Gaza, the Bitter Dream, by Sama Alshaibi]

There is coincidentally a link to the work of Wafa Hourani in ‘Intimacy’, a series of 12 photographs by Jerusalem-born Halawani. The subject of the series is Palestinians passing through the notorious Israeli checkpoint at Qalandia. Halawani’s eloquent images capture intimate glimpses, for example of a ringed hand, a searched bag or identity documents [see image] urge the viewer to reflect on the experiences of the Palestinian individuals concerned.

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