Jack Persekian is a busy man. The artistic director of the Sharjah Biennial is in Palestine when Time Out catches up with him, preparing for the opening of the first exhibition ever to be held on Saadiyat Island. Abu Dhabi Art may have the crowds, but this is the best hint as to where the future of the city’s much-vaunted cultural sector is headed.
Persekian’s show, Disorientation II, heralds the opening of new exhibition centre Manarat Al Saadiyat. It is an important moment – the first return on what has been, until now, a project that has yielded little. This is where the collections from the Guggenheim and Louvre will be shown in the run-up to their 2013 arrival. But, for the moment, all eyes are on Persekian’s exhibition.
‘I wanted to go back to the core of the problem, when things started going wrong,’ says the curator. ‘If you look at the work of a number of the artists exhibiting in the Arab world, there is a general feeling of loss, failure and displacement, be it Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria or anywhere.’
It is a bold move, and Persekian has set the cultural bar high. This isn’t the crowd-pleasing frenzy of 2008’s Picasso or the patriotic breast-beating of Emirati Expressions (a show of Emirati artists held earlier this year). It is an exhibition based on his own research.
The first Disorientation was a florid visual essay in Arab dissatisfaction; the sequel goes further and points a historical finger squarely at the beginnings of Pan-Arabism in the ’60s. It was an idea defined by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser for a secular, pan-Arabian nation; a notion naturally opposed by the orthodox and fundamentalist factions. ‘There is fighting between the conservative religious trends and the secular, where most of the artists are coming from,’ says the curator. ‘There is this failure on the secular front to stand up to the more fundamentalist drives.’
The exhibition identifies two definite eras in Arab art: the optimism of Arab artists in the ’60s and ’70s, when this loss was yet to materialise, juxtaposed with artists from the ’80s onwards, where Persekian identifies a definite negative spiral. He points to works such as Lebanese artist Marwan Rechmaoui’s ‘Beirut Caoutchouc’, which depicts a map of Beirut’s 60 different neighbourhoods etched into a sprawling piece of black rubber. Division is an inherent part of Rechmaoui’s landscape.
‘I am hoping this is the second of a three-part exhibition,’ admits Persekian. ‘A third exhibition would allow me to go to these artists with these ideas and have them engage this condition, actually have them deal with it. For the moment, I am looking at artists and am trying to read through the work to these issues.’
It is a bold exhibition and if it represents a sign of what’s to come, it promises much. Of the 16 artists exhibiting, Persekian argues that works by Hala Elkoussy, Yto Barrada and a series of 12 images by Syrian photographer Hrair Sarkissian all illustrate this notion that the Middle East is a disjointed, inarticulate whole. It’s not the feelgood, prestige event we might expect with the debut of a new gallery. It’s bold, it’s angry, it’s cerebral – if this is the future, we can’t wait.
Disorientation II is at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi from November 21-February 20.
Who’s on show?
Ali Jabri, ‘Downtown Cairo’ Jabri met with Persekian for the first show in the Disorientation series shortly before the Jordanian artist was murdered in his Amman apartment in 2002. He is represented here by this mixed-media work.
Mona Hatoum, ‘Present Tense’ London-based Palestinian artist Hatoum presents this installation of 2,400 soaps made from olive oil from northern Jerusalem. The soaps are inlaid with glass beads to create the map of the territories proposed in the original 1933 peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. We’re not quite sure how this is going to be presented, but the original installation (left) was very striking.
Tarek Al-Ghoussein, ‘Untitled’ Still wandering through the desert with tarpaulin (this time collapsed in a green slump), Dubai-based Al-Ghoussein exhibits works from his DII series.