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The Museum of Modern Art, New York

"Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking"

February 26-May 22, 2006

"Speechless" by Shirin Neshat

"Speechless" by Shirin Neshat, Iranian, born 1957. RC print and ink, 66 x 521/2 "Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery New York, 2006

By Michele Leight

Great art eludes confinement, compartmentalization - and boundaries. Art, for the most part, does not imitate life. Throughout history visionary artists have enabled us to escape life's obvious and discordant realities so that for a few, fleeting moments it is possible to imagine alternatives. It is these "imaginings" that have always contributed to change - life without visionaries would never reach beyond the conventional and the mundane.

"Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking" on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York features 34 works by contemporary artists including Mona Hatoum, Shirin Neshat, Ghada Amer, Shazia Sikander, Jananne Al-Ani, Kutlug Ataman, The Atlas Group/Walid Raad, Shirazeh Houshiary, Pip Horne, Emily Jacir, Y.Z. Kami, Rachid Koraichi, Marjane Satrapi, Shirana Shahbazi and Raqib Shaw - who might broadly be labelled "Islamic" in background and heritage - and two Americans, Bill Viola and Mike Kelly who bring their own spiritual and witty "takes" respectively to notions of identity and spirituality.

This show does an excellent job of illustrating how art can blast through the clogged arteries of polarized thinking while still holding on to that which is cherished and valuable in any given cultural tradition or history - in this case "Islamic." In these heavily politicized times, there is nothing remotely rigid in the the world view or the mind set of the artists whose work is exhibited at this show. Instead they demonstrate that the chaos, dislocation and exile initiated by violence, oppression and instability become the legacy of all those who hope for peace and harmony - regardless of religion, heritage or nationality.

"Without Boundary" approaches its subject from various perspectives, one being the contemporary reinterpretation of the classical traditions of the "'Islamic" arts of calligraphy, miniature painting and the design of carpets and textiles, while also focusing on identity, faith, mysticism and spirituality. The universal and secular components act as an equalizing force - several of the artists are Christian or Muslim, and one - Raqib Shaw - was fortunate to have been exposed to several faiths during his childhood. There is no denying that religion plays a significant part in many of life's high profile dramas today, as have most struggles and contests throughout history. For all the talk of "secular," it is undeniable that half if not more of the world's citizens are attached to a religion or faith - or feel connected to one.

For those who are interested in further exploration, the accompanying catalog "Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking" contains invaluable insights and beautifully written essays by Homi Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University, and Fereshteh Daftari, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and the organizer of this show.

The press preview was held in the deep well atrium of The Museum of Modern Art, a space as awesome and inspiring as the nave of a medieval cathedral, or the dome of a mosque, or temple, while the show itself occupies a more intimate, luminous gallery space of iridescent white walls and shiny wood floors that perfectly complement the innovative, beautiful works in diverse media on display.

Beauty is something I have always associated with "Islamic" ever since I set eyes on the Taj Mahal at sunset. My "polarization" is towards the arts that take precedence over all other influences and because it runs through all nationalities and cultures. The Taj Mahal is a quintessentially "Islamic" monument in a predominantly Hindu country - India - that probably has a higher spirituality content per square mile than any other country in the world and it is beloved by all. As long as there are buildings like the Taj Mahal to feast the eyes upon, we can be proud to be members of the human race. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal, was famous for his tolerance of all religions and creeds - and it is probably one of the most famous symbols of love from a husband to his wife that mankind has ever known, even though poor Shah Jehan was forced to view it from the confines of a distant fort in his old age, where he was imprisoned by his own far more 'fundamentalist' inclined son (see The City Review article on an exhibition of Mughal art).

"White Shadow" by Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne

"White Shadow" (2005) by Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne, Anodized aluminum, Courtesty Lisson Gallery, London and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, 2006

"Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking" questions the use of artists' origins as the sole determining factor in considering their art, because several of the artists featured in this show have left their homelands to live in Europe and the United States, taking with them personal histories, memories and attachments that have morphed over time to encompass more than one culture, or heritage. Fifteen of the artists are of Algerian, Egyptian, Indian, Iranian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinian and Turkish backgrounds, who work in a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpture, embroidery, video, animation, carpet and textile and comic strips.

Mystical "White Shadow" by Shirazeh Houshiary and the British artist Pip Horne, illustrated above, was created specifically for this show and floats in an all white room. It is vibrantly described in the wall text:

"The paradox of this title is echoed in the sculpture and its ghostly presence. The imposing but ethereal spiraling form rises from the floor to the ceiling yet dissolves into the background and melts away as a shadow in the heart of light. The work expresses in abstract terms such mystical themes as being and 'not being' and their intimate connection."

Born in Iran in 1955, Houshiary moved to London in 1974 and studied at the Chelsea School of Art, so that the later part of her artistic formation is Western; her artistic predecessors might be Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko.

The cross fertilization of artistic and cultural sensibilities forged at this show is timely in a world that has become increasingly globalized and a viewing public that is accustomed to jet travel and the Internet. Switching time zones and hemispheres is now routine, and it is often impossible to tell where one is precisely because so many of the "props" are the same.

Emily Jacir's wonderful video installation "Ramullah/New York" (2004-2005) simultaneously juxtaposes scenes from delis, hair salons, travel agencies, convenience stores and clubs in New York and Ramullah, Palestine. Which is which is not clear because she focuses the lens at exactly the same angle in both videos: but there are clues that are fun to play hide and seek with. There is a large - now unusual - Marlboro sign in one of the stores and devotional objects reveal that the owners of one of the delis are Palestinian Christian, a fact that often gets lost in the more forceful imagery we see on TV of the most extremist manifestations of "Palestinian." Jacir describes her work as "the space and time of the body as a bridge across these artificial islands and borders that have been created." Emily Jacir was born in 1970 in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A. and she currently lives and works in New York and Ramallah.

Homi Bhabba describes Jacir's intentions in this video installation best:

"The viewer is split - or doubled? - in vacillating between frames, trying to respond to the ruse of the title. Which is which? Where is here? If read from the perspective of displacement, the work sets out to relate the two scenarios to each other - and to the viewer, who stands uncertainly in between the screens - through a diasporic narrative of 'going back and forth'......It is about passing rough places......about borders and crossings, and exchanges....Jacir's focus on locality in Ramullah and New York does not neglect more global issues; there is a foreboding that at any moment on any day - no more than a minute after the videocam has recorded a person's life and its singular sediments - there could be a catastrophe that would forever maim the routine of civil society and the culture of community."

Carpet by Shirana Shabazi

Shirana Shabazi, (Farsh-01-2004), Hand knotted wool and silk carpet, Courtesy Bob van Orsoouw, Zurich 2006.

Shirana Shabazi's wonderful tiny carpets might be woven in Iran, but they could never be used as floor coverings, and there is noting remotely "Islamic" about their subject matter either; their images imitate different genres of Western painting (still life, landscape) and portraiture - and defy any categorization based on geography or culture.

Homi Bhabha writes:

"Although traditional Iranian art forms - miniatures, carpets, tiles - are quite modest in size, there is an inflated grandiloquence in their choice of subject matter: I have found that we don't represent things that are normal - just an ordinary portrait, a mountain......If a mountain is depicted then it has to be the highest, the most beautiful, important mountain. Shabazi deploys the time-lagged method I've described by using the carpet as the skin for a 'photographic' portrait of an unnamed woman looking slightly askance - an image that is confronted by its double in an exact replica printed on aluminium. The slowly woven carpet becomes the medium for the instant snapshot; the ordinary portrait now transforms the carpet's surface, which traditionally bore great legends and symbols."

Waterlilies, a still life with fruit and a young woman's face (above) rest on a soft surface - carpet - usually reserved for ritual prayers in Islamic culture but subverted here by an artist who was born in Tehran, moved to Germany, and now lives in Zurich. Shabazi is critical, according to Feresteh Daftari, of those who "give her work a plainly political or culturalist (national) genealogy."

It is noticeable that many of the art works in "Without Boundary" have been created by women - who would probably be labeled "Islamic" and therefore likely to be viewed as the traditionally submissive and invisible "attachments" to their culturally more "important" men. Males still rule women with an iron hand in some Islamic nations, but there is not even a hint of submissive Islamic womanhood at this show; these ladies are extremely opinionated, and are not imprisoned in the silent tombs that deny many women access to freedom and creativity across the world today - and not exclusively in Islamic nations, either. Refreshingly, the artists at this show raise the visibility of womankind without doing so dogmatically, or militantly.

Never before in history have as many people left their homelands to live elsewhere as they do now, carrying with them "baggage" and close ties from the old country that persist wherever they eventually reside. The difference at this show is that many of the artists have left nations that have been broad-sided by political upheaval, instability, or outright war - and that endows them with a very different kind of legacy, because the associations, attachments, or daily traumas that emerge from their homelands must resonate - even if they live outside those nations.

"Eight Women in White" by Ghada Amer

"Eight Women in White," by Ghada Amer, 2004, acrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas, Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery, New York

Like the embroidered women of Ghada Amer's canvas "Eight Women in Black and White," illustrated above, we are all sewn into the fabric of life and we are all connected. Issues of gender permeate Amer's work, yet, ironically, she often draws her subjects straight out of porn magazines, which defies the stereotypical view of the Islamic woman covered from top to toe without an inch of flesh showing. Amer uses embroidery and thread for her nude and semi-nude women because, traditionally, it is the '"woman's tool par excellence." In the past, embroidery was one of the few occupations considered suitable for "respectable" women - as in Jane Austen's classic portrayals of women sitting around parlors embroidering while their mothers anxiously seek husbands for them.

"Amer opposes any ideology 'denigrating the female body by trying to to make it asexual,'" writes Feresteh Daftari, "be it fundamentalist (of any religious faith) or feminist in persuasion."

Amer's work also encroaches on the male field of Abstract Expressionism, as she mimics Pollocks 'drips' with her cobwebs of loose threads and informal lines stitched and stretched all over the canvas. She does this exquisitely, never relinquishing that great gift of womanhood - feminity - while always retaining power and strength in her strong line drawings. Ghada Amer was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1963, and now lives and works in New York.

"If Amer should clearly be seen in part through the lens of Arab culture, that view must be complemented with an awareness of her context in contemporary Western art. She was only eleven years old when she moved from France, and if she later settled in New York, it was because she wanted to be seen as an "international" artist, rather than as "Egyptian or Middle Eastern or French," writes Fereshteh Daftari's in a catalogue essay entitled "Islamic or Not."

Ghada Amer defied a teacher's expectations of her when - still a student in the Ecole des Beaux Art in Paris - she side-stepped the assumption that as an Egyption born artist she might use Egyptian calligraphy to inscribe the written quotations she was already appropriating; she chose instead to work in a script legible to her audience in France: Roman script.

"Salome" by Rachid Koraichi

"Salome," by Rachid Koraichi, 1993, gold and indigo handwoven silk, collection the artist

Rachid Koraichi also "embroiders" gold calligraphy on an indigo silk banner, entitled "Salome" (1993), illustrated above, and he is a man. This is not the stereo-typical view of Islamic manhood either, where men are often portrayed in occupations that are far removed from embroidery of any kind. Koraichi uses a sign system of his own invention which is indecipherable and encoded; but even when he does use Arabic script he writes it backwards:

"The mirror image," writes Feresteh Daftari, " has an important place in Islamic thought; as the artist points out for example, the Sufis believe that knowledge of the self is never direct, and must always rely on the mirror. Koraichi is certainly aware of these ideas, but his reverse writing also involves a deliberate attempt to strain legibility."

According to Koraichi, "Salome," (1993), is about a doomed personal relationship, while also referring in its title to the biblical story of the infamous dance that resulted in the death of John the Baptist. The choice of this text illustrates the importance of Christianity in Algeria, the country of his birth, and his ideograms have associations with many visual cultures of North Africa - including numerology, Sufi banners, Talismanic inscriptions, calligraphy, tattoos, the rock paintings of the Ahaggar region of Algeria, and last but not least, the uncanny resemblance to North African Islamic banners.

"Fine Frenzy," by Shirazeh Houshiary, black and white Aquacryl, white pencil and ink on canvas, 2003

In works like "Fine Frenzy" (2004, private collection) with intricate applications of pencil marks by Shazia Houshiary, what is visible on the surface is only the beginning of a much deeper adventure or reality:

"To see the evolution of art through chronological time is a requirement of art historians and critics, but it has never been intrinsic to art," states Houshiary in Homi Bhabha's essay "Another Country" in the exhibition catalog.

"In Houshiary's view," writes Bhabha, "the transforming dimension of art is the distancing of identity and of oneself that comes from the doubleness of veiling/revealing. Whether she is addressing a hermetic word on canvas, or spinning out one of her floating towers, her works have a continuous sense of expansion and contraction, as if their multiple-layered surfaces were exhaling and inhaling like lung tissue, holding their breath, then repeating their hidden word, or dancing their motionless dance."

On the subject of "White Shadow," created by Houshiary and Pip Horne and illustrated earlier in the story, Feresteh Daftari addresses the dualities of being and not-being that blend in Houshiary's work:

"In its formal heritage too, 'White Shadow' confirms confluence rather than opposition, fusing influences that range from the spiral minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Mutawakkil in Samarra, Iraq, built in the ninth century A.D., to Constantin Brancusi's Endless Column (1937) in Tirgu Jiu, Romania. The work is also the most recent addition to a series of towers created by Houshiary and Horne - the last of them, tellingly, in the vicinity of the absent Twin Towers in Manhattan. The contradictions of tradition and modernity, the spiritual and scientific - or of Islamic and not - evaporate in these structures, which erase such oppositions. In the physical structures of the towers, the artists animate the double helix of human genetics with the dance of a whirling dervish."

"Surrender" by Bill Viola

"Surrender," by Bill Viola, color video diptych on two plasma displays mounted vertically on wall, 2001, private collection, New York

Multiplicity and duality - or not - appears in a constantly altering dyptich plasma image "Surrender" by Bill Viola, illustrated above, of a man and a woman facing each other as in a rippling mirror reflection that enlarges and reduces in size - and disappears - only to start all over from a small speck of film on the slick surface of the video screen. Like Houshiary and Y.Z. Kami, Viola is well acquainted with the mystical literature of Asia and Europe and particularly with the mystical poet Rumi who, writes Feresteh Daftari, he considers "a supreme source of inspiration."

The man and woman depicted in Viola's video merge, bow, come closer and are finally about to touch - at which point the spell is broken and the shimmering reflection pulls apart into ripples and disappears into abstraction. Viola is a genius of this medium and one of the most original and compelling artists in the world today. In describing this beautiful work he quotes Rumi:

"He who sees only his reflection in the water is not a lover."

Feresteh Daftari writes: "Viola's search beyond the reflection unites him with Kami," whose work is illustrated below, "who looks to the surface for something beyond the world of appearances. Houshiary similarly seeks to capture the substance, or the essence of things rather than the things itself. All of these artists observe human life with awe and compassion."

Kutlug Ataman usually films subjects who are remarkable in some way, but at this show he re-invents Islamic calligraphy in a modern guise by pairing it in an intoxicating partnership with the technologically advanced medium of digital video - with remarkable effect. Spirituality and "surface" appear once again in the word "Beautiful" written in Turkish, that merges, separates and merges again. Ataman's video animations that are a metaphor for film and video-making itself are on view for the first time in the United States.

"World" (2003) and "Beautiful" (2003) each containing the Turkish word of its title," Feresteh Daftari notes, "combine an interest in cinema with an origin in the marginal tradition of calligraphy in which artists design religious invocations in the form of horses, lions, birds, and human faces. Returning to this verbal/visual genre but rendering it secular, Ataman also returns to the use of Arabic script, which the modern founding father of his native Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, banned in 1929 in the so-called 'alphabet revolution,' as part of the country's project of modernization. The ornamental letters of Ataman's calligraphy, then, belong to an outcast alphabet, a status sometimes elaborated through the profane spirit of these animated works - as in "World," where the letters, as they rotate, form into a phallic erection."

Kutlug Ataman's videos are virile and energizing - and intensely spiritual as they hypnotize and entrance. Together with Bill Viola, Y.Z. Kami and Shirazeh Houshiary, Ataman's work is rooted in the universal, secular and the spiritual and does not stem from any specific religious creed.

Shazia Sikander's multiple layers of pigment, tea and line drawing in "Pleasure Pillars", and Raqib Shaw's visually gorgeous cloisonné and hand-drawn "Garden of Earthly Delights," which derives directly from Hieronymous Bosch, recall exquisite Japanese lacquer screens, exotic shawls and textiles and the illuminated tryptichs of the Italian Renaissance masters - and they mirror each other in miniature and super-sized versions of the ancient tradition of Mughal miniature painting respectively. For Sikander, the study of the time honored - and anachronistic - tradition of miniature painting was an act of defiance as an art student in Lahore, Pakistan, because it was not a logical or natural choice for her:

"It supposedly represented our heritage" she says " "yet we reacted to it with suspicion and ridicule. I had grown up thinking of it as kitsch."

"Pleasure Pillars" by Shazia Sikander

"Pleasure Pillars," by Shazia Sikander, "Pleasure Pillars," watercolor, dry pigment, vegetable color, tea and ink on wasli paper, 2001

Sikander subsequently studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States, particularly the work of Sigmar Polke to better understand "layering paint and narrative." Ultimately, it is through narrative that she shortcircuits any possibility of real anachronism. Feresteh Daftari, Assistant Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture writes in an excerpt from her essay "Islamic or Not":

"Sikander reflects the issues and events of today's world. Post-9/11 politics seep in. 'Web" 2002, from the series "Fifty One Ways of Looking," with its fighter plane caught in the spider's web of some dusty, oil-rigged corner of the globe, could be a poet's anti-war editorial. The context suggests a new interpretation for the traditional motif of a lion devouring a deer."

Perhaps only artists and poets have the ability to imagine that the lion will let the deer pass without devouring it - and that is a concept worth imagining. Shazia Sikander has no less than eight works - all of them gorgeous - included in the show; all are small in scale relative to the other paintings, and all have been created with painstaking layers of 21st century narrative, inks, paints and line drawing that would impress any fabled miniaturist in the Mughal courts of times past. Shazia Sikander is Pakistani, born in 1969.

In contrast to Sikander's finely wrought contemporary miniatures, the epic dimensions of Raquib Shaw's "The Garden of Earthly Delights," (2003) comprising three panels measuring 10' x 15', would easily house all eight of Shazia Sikander's paintings within its borders. Yet, the intricacy, the visual "teasing" and playfulness is apparent in both artists' work; the closer you look at Sikander's or Shaw's work, the more is revealed. This process of "seeing" is very similar to the visual "hide and seek" that one must play with any miniature of times past to find the tiny flower lost in a thicket, or to follow the lion chasing the deer hungrily through the forest. In the process the viewer is drawn irresistably into a sumptuous Arabian Nights adventure of dazzling colors. Raquib Shaw was born in Calcutta in 1974, and now lives and works in London.

"The Garden of Earthly Delights III," by Raqib Shaw, mixed Media on Boar, Private Collection, courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 2003

Raqib Shaw's "Garden of Earthly Delights" series may relate to the Kashmir of his childhood and "Kashmir." he says, "was named paradise by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, who said: 'If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.'" The enamelling, jewelling and sumptuous colors of Raqib's vision derive from a heady mix of Mugal, Japanese and Kashmiri artistic traditions and can only really be appreciated by seeing the real thing. These diverse cultures and influences echo the artists upbringing. "My work has nothing to do with what Kashmir stands for," he warns, "because in a sense as a child I had so many influences. My parents are Muslim, my teachers were Hindu scholars and I went to a Christian school and historically Kashmir was Buddhist."

Soaking up the sheer gorgousness of the painting in the show is like taking a mini-vacation. The jolts of color are a tonic on a cold winter's day.

"Untitled" by Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat, "Untitled," by Shirin Neshat, RC print and ink, 1996, courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Shirin Neshat harkens back to her roots as a young girl in Iran and subverts tradition by combining hand written calligraphy with the mechanically reproduced medium of photography; in doing so, she renders each print unique. Her haunting women, with faces and gaze averted, or partially visible, insinuate possible violation - self-immolation, suicide bombers, warfare - and expose the human urge to commit violence throughout history. This is how the artist describes her influences in Feresteh Daftari's essay for the exhibition catalogue "Islamic or Not:"

"'I was always fascinated by the art of calligraphy,' Neshat recalls, 'and most importantly in how text and image fuse in both Persian and Islamic art, from miniature paintings to other forms. Also, I collected in Tehran's bazaars small plates, good luck charms, where mythological figures of men, women and animals are completely covered in inscriptions, both inside and outside.' In works of this kind Neshat replays the upheavals she found when she visited Iran in 1990, after a sixteen-year absence. (She had left as a teenager in 1974, five years before the revolution that toppled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.) The contradictions implicit in these works show her grappling with a revolution that had turned the familiar into the uncanny."

In "Speechless," (1996), by Shirin Neshat, illustrated at the top of this article, a woman wears a gun barrel in place of an earring, while her face is "tattooed" with finely wrought script in a decorative body ornamentation that resembles the Indian festival of mehendi - where hands and feet are ritually annointed with henna. This marriage of the technological and the traditional barely disguises the symbol of body-as-weapon, while highlighting female beauty and desire. It is an incongrouous pairing that is both alluring and macabre - as if at any moment this wistful, beautiful creature could self-ignite into a thousand fragments at the touch of a button, or the tug of a hidden cord.

Here is what Homi Bhabha has to say on the subject of Islam and violence today in an excerpt from his essay "Another Country," in the exhibition catalogue:

"If you talk of Islam today, in the context of the making of visual images, your eye doesn't follow the hunt so beloved of Safavid artists; your lungs don't fill with the perfumed air of Mughal gardens and pavillions; your mind doesn't race along the calligraphic calisthenics, or acrobatic geometries of dome and minaret. Today these popular images of Islamic art have lost their clement weather and their plein air pleasures. The age of terror that seems to have settled upon us like a chemical cloud disfigures our popular vision and encloses us in a harrowing chamber. It is difficult, in the West at least, to invoke 'Islamic' images without calling up the Abu Gharib album, the televised beheading of the American businessman, and many other entries to the museé macabre of war and terror."

Naturally, there is a sense of longing for a return to normality for artists whose homelands have been laid to waste by war, instability and political upheaval. Amazingly, none of the images at this show are violent - although they allude to it - which is more than can be said of popular cultural iconography across the globe today. It was a welcome reprieve not to have to deal with it in visual form at this show.

"Untitled 1 & 2" by Jananne Al-Ani

"Untitled 1 & 2" by Jananne Al-Ani, Kirkuk, Iraq

"Untitled I & 2" (1996) are riveting photographs by Jananne Al-Ani, an artist based in London who is half-Iraqi and half-Irish. Frankly this image of five women in various stages of hijab, or veiling/and unveiling drew me like a magnet - especially the bared knees which are central to this "performance" for the camera. It is deliberately staged and intentionally provocative for anyone who is familiar with the "strictures" of Islam and the requirement that women's bodies remain covered at all times - with absolutely no skin visible. The reversing of the veiling and unveiling in the women is also deliberate - and de-mystifying the less veiled they become. This is, however, staged and "fake," not real, but Al-Ani's intentions are not sinister . In this re-enactment of herself, her mother and her three sisters Al-Ani demonstrates Orientalist photography's dependence on performance and its inability to convey any truths about the subject it portrays.

"Untitled" by Mike Kelly

"Untitled," by Mike Kelly, (1996-97), hand woven silk (made in Ghom, Iran), 1996-97, courtesy Brian Butler, Los Angeles

For those who unconsciously stereotype and pigeon-hole people by race, ethnicity and religion, this wonderfully fresh interpretation - or subversion - of a Persian rug might not be obvious at first. As the most conventionally "Islamic" object in the show, it is in fact based on a carpet Mike Kelly, an American, found in a bulletin from The Metropolitan Musuem of Art that described its ancestry as 16th Century Ottoman Turkish. This contemporary version was handwoven in Iran, and the background color was changed from red to green (of Kelly's own Irish heritage) and the central motifs in the medallion are Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs. With this Irish stamp on a traditionally Islamic object, how is it to be classified or labelled? Is it "Islamic," or not? In the show it is placed amongst Shirana Shibazi's amazing miniature re-interpretations of the classic Persian rug, and Kelly's looks far more "Islamic" than hers.

"Keffieh" by Mona Hatoum

"Keffieh," by Mona Hatoum, (1993-99), human hair on cotton, 1993-1999, collection Peter Norton, Santa Monica

Mona Hatoum is well known to international art viewers, and a particular favorite of this reviewer for her head-on collisions with conformity - including this re-creation of the traditional headscarf or "Keffieh" worn by Arab men that interweaves strands of women's hair with the Arab symbol of machismo.

"Can you for instance imagine a man wearing it with trailing hair?" asks Hatoum. In an interweaving of two genders in one fabric Hatoum recognized "a kind of quiet protest in the art of embroidery, which like Reichek and Amer she specifically associates with women" writes Feresteh Daftari. "In 'Keffieh' then, she is subtly giving women visibility through both the work's medium and its technique." Homi Bhabba also gives an interpretation of this enigmatic work:

"The macho style is an externalized response to the powers of domination; but it is also a form of domination turned inward, within the community poised against the presence of women, whose voices are either repressed, or sublimated in the cause of struggle. Hatoum's feminized headscarf reveals this disavowal of the place of women and re-inserts their point of view through the embroidered strands of hair that hang loose beyond the boundary, breaking the pictorial grid of the material in the process of redefining the symbolic surface of political struggle."

"Untitled" by Y. Z. Kami

"Untitled," by Y. Z. Kami, (2004-05) oil on linen, 2004-5, courtesy of the Artist and Gagosian Gallery, New York

Y. Z. Kami's portrait of a woman, illustrated above, evokes the same sense of awe and wonder as a Renaissance Madonna - distant, other worldly - who in this instance is frozen in the moment when she "unlocks" from a meditative state. Kami's subjects become part of a universal "self-hood," or tribe, as in "humankind," as their humanity dissolves into the whole. That ageless moment between "elsewhere" and "here" evokes the serene archetype - Buddha, Madonna - that are found in any religion or culture.

The gorgeous, dry frescolike quality of Kami's technique gives the sitters an Old Master grandeur in contemporary circumstances. The dimensions - 11' 2" x 6' 6" - dwarf the viewer, requiring them to step back as one does when gazing upon any great masterpiece - yet Kami's are intensely approachable. The viewer wants to move closer. Like Viola and Houshiary, Kami's spirituality derives from the thirteenth century poet and mystic Jalal al Din Muhammed - best known as Rumi.

As I retraced my steps to the escalators at MoMA overlooking the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden one floor below, I marvelled at how the silvery dustings of frost and snow sparkled like crystal in the early afternoon light. In a setting as perfect as this, with gleaming glass towers glinting like megaliths beyond the perimeter of the museum walls, it was hard to imagine lives filled with anything but security and peace - realistically, however I knew this idyll would last only until the TV set was turned on, or a newspaper opened. But that is better than no escape from reality at all - and that is the gift that art bestows: a chance to imagine alternatives.

I found myself thinking of Marjane Satrapi's wonderful 2001 cartoon "Persepolis 'Kim Wilde' chapter," created while she was living in Paris - in exile from her native Iran. Her cartoon gives a vivid idea of what it must be like to live - even briefly - in a society where freedom of choice, or expression, is a punishable offence; where Western clothing, or popular music, or books are forbidden and everyone must conform to a "norm" imposed by an inviolable hierarchy whose mission is to promote virtue and prevent vice - like George Orwell's "Big Brother." All of this is movingly illustrated by the artist after experiencing such conditions herself as a young girl in Iran. The "accuser" in her cartoons looks like Darth Vader - hooded, clandestine - every young person's "scary monster" personified. For Satrapi, the monster was real - because artists are particularly threatened in such circumstances.

Satrapi cites her major influence as Art Spiegelman's 1986 graphic novel "Maus" that recounts his father's experiences as a European Jew during World War II. She named her comic book story after Persepolis, described by Feresteh Dafrati as "the capital of the Achaemenid Empire, which was centered in what is now Iran from the sixth century till the fourth century B.C - a high point in pre-Islamic Persia. In calling her series "Persepolis," then, Satrapi invokes a history that extends back in time far beyond 1979, and beyond the Islamic regime, with which Iran has come to be identified." The artist was born in 1969 in Rasht, Iran and now lives and works in Paris.

Sadly, freedom of expression and beliefs are violated in many societies around the world today, and echoes of these violations were keenly felt at this show even though they were so gently transmitted. Just this spring, newpaper reports reveal that Iran's most famous dissident - Akbar Ganji - has been "temporarily" released from a six-year jail sentence after weeks on hunger strike for criticizing Tehran's mullah regime in his book "The Red Eminence," in which he linked Iran's political leaders to the murders of prominent critics of the regime in the 1990s. His supporters warn that if he keeps up his criticism, he will return to jail. He currently weighs 108 pounds.

Marjane Satrapi lives in a free society today, experiencing the kind of freedom that is denied daily to millions across the globe. How wonderful it would be for all the artists at this show to be able to visit their homelands some day without fear that their honesty would draw reprisals. Exile without return due to fear - without a chance to breathe that long lost air - should not be a requirement of anyone.

"Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking" is a contemporary artistic journey steeped in history and tradition, while actively engaged in the innovations of the present. Seventeen visonary artists show us that individually we are merely players in a cast of billions on this earth, like stars strung out across the galaxies. Yet, for all their worldliness and internationalism the creators of these intensely personal artworks graciously invite us into private worlds and experiences we might otherwise never know, or even begin to understand.

History matters - and it is wittily toyed with and mischievously subverted by Walid Raad in "Without Boundary," (which the reader can explore at the show), through a nostalgic, moving series of photographs (some of them digitally enhanced, or altered) for anyone who loves images that are reminiscent of their parents and grandparents now faded originals displayed in family albums. Their inclusion in the show rightfully acknowledges how much has been saved through the years by artists like Raad through photography (and film) for posterity. Walid Raad further raises the visibility - and importance - of archival and documentary photography and film by presenting it in the tongue-in-cheek guise of "The Atlas Group," which sounds more like a multi-national corporation, or a hotel chain, than an artist's archive.

History matters whether it is personal, familial, spiritual, religious or cultural - including the mundane photographic documentation of ordinary lives lived every day. This show takes an honest and unfettered look at the subtle boundaries and barriers we create for ourselves as it invites us into the lives of visionary artists who have had to find some way of reconciling the compartments and labels they have inherited.

"Without Boundary" is an uplifting and dynamic show that has made me more convinced than ever that labels are meaningless.

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"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at www.amazon.com and at www.ashraya-ny.org

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