Books About The Middle East

A random list of books I read about the Middle East so far:

  1. Arabian Nights & Day by Naguib Mahfouz
  2. The Kite Runner: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  3. Rags to Riches: A story of Abu  Dhabi by Mohammed Al-Fahim
  4. Uncharted Journey: Promoting Democracy in the Middle East by Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway, editors
  5. A Woman in Arabia by Gertrude Bell
  6. T.E. Lawrence: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
  7. A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani
  8. The Arabs by Eugene Rogan
  9. Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States by F. Gregory Gause
  10. Lords of the Desert by James Barr
  11. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
  12. Florence of Arabi by Christopher Buckley
  13. Abud Dhabi: oil and beyond by Christopher Davidson
  14. The mother without a Mask by Patricia Holton
  15. A Diamond in the desert by Jo Tatchell
  16. Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab States
  17. The Gulf Family: Kinship Policies and Modernity by Alamoud Alshareck
  18. Oil Monarchies
  19. What is really wrong with the Middle East by Brian Whitaker
  20. Dubai by Jo Bennet
  21. Arabic Language for Foreigners.
  22. Sultan in Oman by Ian Morris
  23. Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi
  24. The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez
  25. The Sand fish by Maha Gargash

Four Omani Artists Take the Lead in the Wapping Project Art Exhibition in Muscat: Art Review by Dia Mexi-Jones

F2A78090-D95F-44DC-9DA5-7C6991C18471_1_201_aPic. 1: ‘Arabian Landscape with a North European Woman Trying to Blend in (Tree), 2019, colour photograph’ by Elina Brotherus. Photo©Dia Mexi-Jones

The Stal Gallery in Muscat, in collaboration with the British Council, presents the Wapping project exhibition with the title ‘Resonance.’ The Wapping Project, a London-based art organization, has commissioned four Omani and one Finnish artist to create artworks and exhibit them at the Stal Gallery in Muscat. This show is the beginning of a peripatetic exhibition using the same title but with local artists from each GCC country. The title ‘Resonance’ is by itself an intelligent choice; it has a twofold meaning; in physics, it means ‘sound reverberation’, and its literal meaning is ‘makes something personally meaningful or important’. A brilliant title for an art exhibition, since it applies to both artists and audience engagement. But let’s see how successful was this engagement.

At the entrance of the Gallery, there is an imposing life-size picture of the five female artists wearing dark colour trousers and holding on their faces a stick like a moustache. An image that brought in my mind the famous poster of the Guerrillas Girls’ “Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met?”. In this case, the girls pass a similar message that could be interpreted as “Do We need to be Disguised as Men to Exhibit our Artwork?”

The interior space of the Gallery has a theatrical ambience. Black curtains have covered all the Gallery’s walls, and the artworks are hanging on them by a piece of string. This curatorial innovation catches the visitor by surprise and increases the curiosity to see what’s next.

The first artwork that the visitor comes across is Elina Brotherus’ photo of the Omani landscape with her figure blended in it (pic.1). Brotherus is a Finnish artist living in France. Her artwork focuses on photography and moving image. She has been inspired by the Fluxus movement using score events (written instructions for performance-oriented art of the 1950s-70s). In this particular project, Brotherus works as a mentor to the local artists and uses event scores that come from the American Fluxus Conceptual artist John Baldessari.

Based on this concept, the five artists developed their artwork during their residency. Brotherus’ series of photographs ‘regle de jeu = rules of the game’ have a cheerful effect on the visitors’ senses. Her figure plays the ‘hide and seek’ game with Oman’s landscape. Sometimes it is predominant, and others it is blended carefully with the beautiful colours of the scene. She has managed to entrap in her photos the unique yellowish and greenish hue of Oman’s landscape, which differentiates it from the rest of the GCC desert-like landscapes. Her beautiful coloured pictures with the joyful theme created a contrast to the gloomy atmosphere of the Gallery. Still, at the same time, it generates a stimulating juxtaposition with the rest of Omani’s artworks.

The four Omani artists found their inspiration in their local culture and their identity and status inside this society. Through the event scores process, they have created artworks with bold messages. Next to Brotherus’s Omani’s landscape image there is the video of the Omani artist Ruqaiya Mazar, a graduate from the University of Nizwa with an emphasis on photography, video and digital art, presents videos and photographs that portray the society’s demands on the individual and particularly on women in this society. She intelligently creates artworks that pass the messages clearly about all the constraints and barriers a female has to anticipate in her community. Her video with the title “When They See Me (Why? Why Not)” depicts herself covered by a see-through scarf answering back to all the voices in the Arabic language around her with a simple word “Halas,” in loose translation “ok, I obey.” The latter word stops any debate between the agents (female or male) and the institution of the family.  Also, it terminates any change of certain gendered expectations in this society. Rules made not to be broken.

In the next space of the Gallery, there are the photographs of Rawan Almahrouqui, a graduate from Sultan Qaboos University. She focuses on the female experience in the Arabian Gulf and the double standards, the thin line between tradition and religion. Rawan’s series of photographs with the title ‘Me and My Scarf’ (pic.2), it’s a series of multiple photos of gestures, a choreography of gestures with her scarf, hiding her eyes, her mouth or transformed it to a struggling rope. It’s almost like the classroom activity of ‘show and tell’ without words but photographs—a game of gestures that releases more a sense of passive-aggressiveness rather than joy.

801A5BA8-DE6F-419B-8D26-CAA6B486D3D9Pic.2: ‘Me And My Scarf’, 2020 series of 20 b&w photographs by Rawan Almahrouqi. Photo:© Dia Mexi-Jones

 Safa Baluchi, a graduate from Nizwa University with a BA in Spatial design, works across performance, video, photography, and installation. She won the Young Emerging Artist Prize run by Stal Gallery in Muscat. As with the previous Omani artists, her artwork explores the individual in Arabic society. Her videos with herself as the main protagonist using as a tool her scarf or stones from the beach washing both of them diligently. This procedure reminded me of Vronsky, Tolstoy’s character in Anna Karenina, who was referring to the word laundry “I’m going to make my laundry” when he was isolating to put his feelings and thoughts in order. Safa uses the same concept to clean her guiltiness for not doing the right thing according to the demands of her society. Safa’s brilliant conceptual art is using the appropriate semiotics, red scarf, and bucket as carriers of her guiltiness.

All the above artists’ works are concentrated in the area of domesticity, which is traditionally female terrain to present their art projects except Riham Noor Al Zadjali, a graduate in Fine Arts from Paris American Academy with a focus on current global events, war, immigration. Her installation ‘They Will Welcome Us With Flowers’ (pic.3) made up with a real garden with beautiful flowers, and among them metallic look like missiles written on them various messages. An installation that clarifies any misconception about war, where rockets are killing civilians and destroying their homes. Riham moves further to this of Martha Rosler’s collage ‘Beautiful Home'(1967), where she connected the ‘there’ war in Vietnam and the ‘here,’ the American homes in the USA. She creates a real garden to raise awareness about what the soldiers thought about going to serve their country and what happened by shooting the deadly missiles. She manages well to deliver the message of this grave fact with a sense of humour and irony and puts a real smile on the face of the visitor by reading on the metallic missiles messages like “look here smile for flash,” “game is over!”, “special delivery!”.

All the artists make strong statements by using their identity in their artworks.  They transform their female body from object to subject as Lucy Lippard wrote: “when women use their own bodies in their artwork, they are using their selves; a significant psychological factor converts these bodies or faces from object to subject”. They brilliantly resonate their messages to the audience and their uneasiness with the constraints that their society imposes on them. All four of them are a breath of fresh air ready to take on board all the young people who may have similar existential thoughts. Impressively, the Northern European artist did not patronize the local appearance; she tried to blend with them and show another side of existence.

49081378-43EF-4022-8E08-FF54E6263BFAPic.3: ‘They Will Welcome Us With Flowers’, 2020, installation, metal missiles, flower garden by Riham Noor Al Zadjali. © Dia Mexi-Jones

The only drawback of this exhibition and the reason which maybe will not comply with the chosen title ‘Resonance’ and succeed to spread the message to the broader community is the curatorial approach. The black curtains surrounding the whole exhibition are a formidable semiotic artistic trick (the semiotic of abayas). Still, it created a gloomy atmosphere that needed desperately to be enhanced with more explanation and interpretation of the artworks to keep the audience engaged on the spot. Since we are in the era of educational turn in curating and the most critical leading art exhibitions, show the way how to present the conceptual art (see Documenta, Biennale), where the storytelling and explanation are an essential part of the display. Indeed, there was the exhibition’s brochure, which supported it with texts and other interpretations of the whole show. Still, I think it was insufficient, especially for this audience in this country. I felt it needed more description with labels and panels to keep more engaged with the audience. The art world has moved from the era of the white cube curatorial concept to that of the educational. In our times, since there is minimum schooling about art in the schools replaced by science, art exhibitions are the single source of art education. Overall, I think it was a brave step forward for the art projects in this area, and the Omani artists have shown signs of great audacity precisely what one needs from the art people. They are taking the leading role in moving the society forward through the medium of thoughtful reflection on the community and the world they live in.

 

Written by Dia Mexi-Jones, an independent curator based in London & Muscat

 

Resonance Exhibition

4 March – 2 April 2020

Stal Gallery, Muscat

Abu Dhabi Revisited

Visiting a place that you have lived for long time with the identity of a tourist is quite a strange thing, let alone your homeland.  This time it wasn’t my homeland but another place where I lived for long enough  in order to feel somehow at ‘home’.  So when I revisited Abu Dhabi some time ago,  it was a nice break and  triggered some  strong emotions and nostalgia. I realised how much missed the place, how much missed the heat, the shy smiles  of the local women under their scarfs, the softness  and simultaneously the sense of careless in the expression of the local men.  I missed my friends, whom I didn’t manage to see all of them due to my short stay, but had the opportunity to take a taste of the latest changes in the city.

Abu Dhabi is one of those ‘oily’ cities that are changing in unprecedented way, fast and impressive.  Arriving at the airport, the first novelty was the black huge 6 seats taxi waiting for us. Abu Dhabi defines itself with a steady pace as a luxurious holiday resort. Despite all the Cassandras’s predictions ” it’s a bubble, soon or later it will collapse  bla,bla…” Abu Dhabi’s infrastructure has taken  a quantum leap. New buildings, malls, palaces, hotels are coming up in a fast way and  creating  an impressive skyline. I stayed in my old neighbourhood for the obvious reasons, familiarity with the place. Of course, I don’t know how much familiar could be, since in this area, the Corniche, there are some new constructions, a huge mall  with very interesting shops and brands and a nice new beach club- a boat design- opposite to it.

P1090285

The Corniche area.

P1090329

The new mall in the Corniche.

P1090333

Nice shops with nice decoration on the walls. The new mall looks very promising!

 

P1090356

The new beach club in the Corniche. The boat design is its signature.

 

P1090366

My favourite buildings, Etihad towers, with a new copper tower next to them! I’m not sure about the latter but the lego approach is a common practice out there!
P1090383

At the rear of the Emirates Palace.
P1090376

The new palaces will be 6 in total in order to accommodate all the Seikhs from the rest 6 Emirates (7 in total: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain).

P1090397

I visited once more  the restaurant BBQ Al Qasr at the beach of the Emirates Palace, which for me is the best restaurant in Abu Dhabi in terms of service firstly and food secondly. Service in the developing countries is a sensitive term,  since it doesn’t have the same meaning as in the western world!

P1090374

The beach of the Emirates Palace is really magnificent.

P1090454

But again, this is my favourite place in Abu Dhabi, Monte-Carlo Beach Club. Especially this small pavillion at the beach for coffee and drinks and if you are lucky you can spot  sea turtles in the surrounding area with the bushes.! How exciting is that? It reminds me so much the Hamptons and I think this was exactly its purpose!

P1090477

 

 

IMG_4398

One of its restaurants, the Deck , good for brunch. The food is feast in the eyes, different kind of charcuterie, sea food, desserts…
P1090448

But the most glamorous bit is ‘a la piscine’,
P1090438

and afterwards resting in the gorgeous spa, reading magazines, watching tv, having some massage.

IMG_4408

going to Turkish bath after the sauna,P1090443or  going to Jaccuzi for fun.

 

P1090460

Bye bye Abu Dhabi, see you soon! I will be always ready to be impressed by you and actually, this is what you really want!