Arab Express: First contemporary Arab art exhibition opens in Japan

Sara Elkamel, Monday 23 Jul 2012

Ahram Online talks to Fumio Nanjo, Mori Art Museum curator running the exhibition about breaking stereotypes and forging dialogue between the Far East and the Arab World

Meera Huraiz Gladiator 2010 Lambda print on aluminum, Courtesy- XVA Gallery

Japan's first ever exhibition of contemporary Arab art is now on display at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo until October. Entitled Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World, the exhibition aims to present modern Arab painting, sculpture, photography and film to a Japanese audience.

Four of the 34 artists featured are Egyptian, including revolutionary martyr and former Helwan University art professor Ahmed Bassiouny, who was killed on 28 January, 2011 during the 18-day uprising on Tahrir Square.

The exhibition aims to challenge widespread stereotyped assumptions of the Middle East such as terrorism, ethnic and sectarian conflicts and political division by exploring the realities and subtleties of the Arab world through the diverse work on show.

"We have deliberately selected artworks that relate directly to the reality of life in that region," writes the museum in the exhibition press release.

The collection is meant to provide a "news-like 'report' on the Arab world’s current state as well as its diverse and rapidly changing cultures and lifestyles," the statement continues.

Its title, Arab Express, is deliberately reminiscent of a newspaper or a rapid-service train, reflecting the exhibition's aim to convey the current circumstances in this rapidly-changing region.

"The Mori Art Museum, with its key missions of being 'contemporary' and 'international' since its inception in 2003, is determined to take the lead in introducing the latest selection of art from certain regions," museum and exhibition curator Fumio Nanjo explains to Ahram Online. Arab Express is the latest in a series of African, East-Asian, Chinese and Indian exhibitions.

After visiting the Middle East ten times and exposing himself to its cultural landscape through attending the Sharjah Biennale and the Art Fair in Dubai, Nanjo discovered the scope of the region’s cultural and historical richness. In particular, he is fascinated with the Gulf countries’ recent investment in substantial art projects.

Nanjo explains how it was crucial for him to meet Arab artists and understand the context in which the work is being produced. Contemporary artists from the region, he says, have an "independent and mature" vision.

"It was inspiring for me to present Arab art to a Japanese audience," Nanjo adds. "The purpose of this exhibition was not to understand Arab society, nevertheless, art has the power shift people's gaze to the reality of the society that forms the backdrop of the work."

In addition, a wide range of supplementary events, including guided tours and workshops, run alongside the exhibition providing the audience with a deeper understanding of the artists and the region.

Founder of Cairo-based art centre Darb 1718, Moataz Nasr, is the first featured Egyptian artist. Nasr, who is exhibiting a photo collage entitled Cairo Walk (2006), has been involved in making contemporary artwork accessible to all sections of Egyptian society.

"[Nasr] is an energetic creator of incisive works that target issues concerning contemporary society and politics," Nanjo says.

Also featured is the controversial work Silence of the Lambs by Egyptian digital artist Amal Kenawy, that Nanjo belives "represents an attempt to portray rather than to present universal truths."

The film features a recorded performance of around 20 people, including a dozen labourers, crawling in procession across a very busy Cairo highway. It is interrupted by others debating about whether this act could be regarded as art. 

"The performance resulted in Kenawy being jailed for three days," explains Nanjo, "the democracy movement in Cairo began in early 2011, a month after the video was shown [at the 12th International Cairo Biennale].  This could perhaps be considered as a predictor of the social revolution to come."

Another featured Egyptian artist is Maha Maamoun, co-founder of the Cairo-based art initiative Contemporary Image Collective. The photographer and video artist's pieces "typically involve turning her lens on the Cairo streets, creating works that re-discover stereotypes embedded in the symbols represented there," says Nanjo.

Maamoun is exhibiting Domestic Tourism II (2008) a film which was awarded the Jury Prize at the 2009 Sharjah Biennial.

The fourth featured Egyptian artist is the late revolutionary art professor Ahmed Bassiouny. Nanjo had interviewed Bassiouny in December 2010 and "thought he was one of the most creative and unique Arab artists because of his active incorporation of science and technology into his work."

"We had already determined that he was to be included in the participating artist list for the exhibition," explains Nanjo, "Then at  54th International Venice Biennale at the Egyptian Pavillionin June 2011, I discovered that he had been killed by snipers while taking part in a demonstration in Tahrir Square.”

Nanjo believes the Arab Spring will change the art of the Arab region since "art always reflects the situation of the society and culture."

He says that transformations unfolding in the political, economic and cultural climate put creativity in the spotlight: “art is always meaningful when [people] have things to say.”

Bringing the region's artists to Japan was one way of transcending the geographical gap and opening a creative dialogue between the Middle East and the Far East, concludes Nanjo. "I think art plays one of the most important roles in learning about and listening to the voice of others."


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