Glenn Lowry: Contemporary Art in the Middle East

I came across this great video a couple of weeks ago while doing research on contemporary art in the Middle East. Exactly a year ago, for the Arthur Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary, Glenn Lowry (the famous director of the MoMA) led a remarkable discussion on one of the “hottest” topics in the art world: Contemporary Art in the Middle East.

Ranked 8th in the list of Art review’s 2013 Power 100 of the art world, Glenn Lowry is without a doubt one of the most influential, intellectual and innovative person in the field of art today. Lowry was particularly chosen to give a talk for Sackler’s anniversary because his prolific career started at this institution; he held the position of curator of Islamic art at the Sackler from 1984 to 1990 and played a fundamental role in the initial phase of the gallery.

Focus: Walid Raad and Reflection on History

The whole idea behind Lowry’s talk and thoughts on the Middle East was first triggered years ago when he traveled to the United Arab Emirates with the Lebanese artist Walid Raad, an Associate Professor of Art at the Cooper Union in New York. While on their mission to talk about new trends in contemporary art, they came across the advertisement of a commercial bank that read the following statement: “PRE-WRITE HISTORY.”

Two great thinkers such as Glenn Lowry and Walid Raad instinctively reflected upon the statement of such an advertisement and mostly on the meaning of history in the Middle East, a region with an unresolved past, present and future.

“No one has thought more about this problem than Walid Raad,” Lowry says in the video. As reflected in all of his artistic work, Raad continuously tries to research, write and understand the complexity of Arab history.

Raad is very much interested in the effects that the recent infrastructures, the proliferation of art fairs and the ambitious art ventures will have on the region. Lowry states that: “What Raad is actually after is trying to understand how the visual arts will be conceived made and consumed in the Arab World.”

Walid Raad’s recent project entitled Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Modern Art in the Arab World, is an ongoing endeavor to analyze the forces that shape history in the region and manifest themselves in art under different thoughts, forms and lines.

Walid Raad's installation and opening reception for "Scratching on Things I Could Disavow" at CalArts' REDCAT

Walid Raad’s installation and opening reception for “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow” at CalArts’ REDCAT

It’s really interesting to take a closer look at the initial thought process that influenced Raad’s project or “mission” to analyze the complexity of the Arab art history. He draws his influence from the writings of Lebanese filmmaker, thinker and author Jalad Toufic and his 2009 essay on The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster. What Toufic aims to examine is the way a disaster – in all its forms – alter the grounds of tradition.

Like art, history has been affected by the various cases of turmoil in the region. It is no coincidence that the literature, the timeline, or the numbers of accounts on the cultural and artistic evolutions in the region remain shy, unresolved and often unwritten. Toufic and Raad are both interested in the immaterial destruction of cultural heritage. Or what Toufic calls the “withdrawal” phase, a concept that is embraced by many contemporary artists in their works post-trauma.

“That’s what Raad is exploring,” Lowry explains. “He wants to understand how the traumas that have wracked the Middle East – not just Lebanon but elsewhere – have affected artists’ access to their cultural heritage, to the works of art that you and I take for granted.”

It is the consequences of that same collateral damage that are actually shaping the region today. By resurrecting the art of their predecessors – a strategy many artists attempt to do- what is currently happening in the arts of the region is a simultaneous construction and reconstruction of history. Historians, artists and scholars are digging in the past in an attempt to understand the present.  So “Pre-writing history” in the Middle East is not a plan based on the future, I would say it is largely about recovering the missing or fractured history of the region through art or any other cultural medium.

My focus was on the work of the Lebanese artist Walid Raad. Yet, Lowry’s comprehensive talk introduced the conceptual ideas behind the works of four other artists including Jordanian artist Oraib Toukan, Israeli artist Michael Blum, Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and Palestinin artist Emily Jacir who are all in a way similarly attempting to fill the gap of an illusion called history. Watch the video, it’s well worth it!


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