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
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).
"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
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
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
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,
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
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
"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.
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.
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
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
"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."
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
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
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.