- Regarding the Images of Others
During the summer of 2014 a section of the New Museum’s ground floor was transformed by a wallpapered installation that transported viewers to the lavish interior of an Abu Dhabi hotel. Over the Visitor Services desk of the New York institution was a frieze of stately portraits—the type of official imagery that is often seen in public (and private) spaces in the Arab world. Adhered to the back wall and elevator doors of the lobby, the installation, The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirage(2014), belonged to the GCC, a group of artists and cultural practitioners originally from Persian Gulf states, many of whom grew up in Kuwait. Assuming the acronym of the Gulf Cooperation Council—the political and economic alliance that joins the monarchies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—the collective uses tongue-in-cheek appropriation as the basis of performative installations and happenings. In doing so, the GCC pinpoints the ritualized posturing and image branding that characterizes the realm of Gulf politics.
The GCC commissioned the paintings of its eight members from a Kuwait-based artist who frequently produces portraits for ruling families. Although the collective includes the curator Amal Khalaf and the artists Fatima Al Qadiri and Monira Al Qadiri, who are sisters, each member is depicted in the male regalia of the intergovernmental union, a performance of gender that also speaks to the region’s patrilineal monarchies. The backdrop of the airbrushed portraits, a facsimile of a [End Page 216]billionaire’s marble playground with gold trimmings, references the growing luxury goods industry that has become the public face of such places as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait. The simulated environment also suggests the combination of exorbitant displays of wealth and political influence that has shaped the Gulf during its rapid modernization over the last four decades.
The GCC’s installation introduced the multilayered approaches of the museum-wide survey Here and Elsewhere, the New Museum’s exhibition of contemporary art from the Arab world. The curatorial premise avoided pedestrian views of the Middle East and North Africa by focusing on the concerns of nearly sixty image makers whose works address the precariousness of documentary forms, mass media, and historical narratives in the face of societal shifts and the volatility of political realities. 1
Often intersecting in theme and subject matter, the works were loosely organized around specific art scenes or circles, which presented a rare glimpse into the aesthetic trajectories that are currently responding to and shaping the region’s visual culture. Near the GCC’s installation, for example, were the pioneering Emirati artist Hassan Sharif’s intricate sculptural works, bundles and mounds of found objects and materials that subtly comment on the disposable, mass-produced products that flood the Gulf as recent trade agreements satisfy growing demand. A glass wall partitions this gallery from the rest of the ground floor, allowing visitors to look in from the lobby. The elder artist’s works were thus in direct view of the opulent space of the pseudodelegation, creating an evocative contrast in materiality. Sharif’s grid-like patterns formed with rope, copper, or twine keep each unit in place. Although based on mathematic formulas of his own invention, they also evoke Bedouin textile weaving, a disappearing tradition typically maintained by women. Sharif’s art objects were displayed on glass shelves that recalled an archaeological display case and further emphasized the concept of excavated culture. His mammoth hanging mobile, Suspended Objects(2011)—composed of knotted cords, cardboard, fabric, foam pieces, and other castoffs—was arguably the masterwork of the show. In placing The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirageand Sharif’s austere art at the entrance of the exhibition, the curators of Here and Elsewhereseemed to poke fun at the narrow spectrum of curatorial strategies frequently employed in such surveys of the Arab world. In the United States in particular, essentializing imagery and anthropological lenses...