Hassan Meer, New Identity

Launch Edition Editorial

October 2009

The term muraqqa implies a patch of fabric interlocking overlapping layers, a blank canvas, and in a literary context, an artistic or poetic interlude. The term itself also translates into Farsi and Turkish, therefore deeming it applicable within cross-cultural contexts. In Islamic art history, muraqqa denoted an album comprised of various samples of paintings and miniatures, calligraphic work, and a range of sketches held in the possession of a monarch. Applying the usage of this term in a contemporary context whilst retaining its historical connotations in the title, Muraqqa intends to catalogue the prevalent forms of art production today in Western and Central Asia, North Africa, Asia Minor and their respective diasporas to engage the general public in the ‘Middle Eastern’ art world in order to grant these artistic practices a stable and accessible platform.

Ultimately, it intends to ignite an interventional dialogue between these regions that can collectively be referred to as the ‘Middle East’ and the Western world, and to educate the world at large about the contemporary arts of the Middle East. Muraqqa itself does not believe in regionalising contemporary art produced in the Middle East and portraying it as separate from or subordinate to artistic practices from other regions of the world, in relationship to examining ‘art’ from a global perspective as a ‘whole’. Yet as a cosmopolitan and metropolitan European based publication, it strives to give this art a much-needed agency and platform to present itself on a global international stage.

The launch edition of Muraqqa explores various themes, with issues surrounding identity politics and globalisation eminent throughout the varying frequency of material. Two special features that I would like to emphasize are the reviews written by Aisha Stoby on the artwork of Omani artists Radhika Khimji and Hassan Meer, for both of them serve as profound examples of artists from the Gulf (khaleej) region of the Arab world, whose aesthetic and conceptual standards should provide some form of criterion for other artists from the Gulf to maintain and supercede. Specialists in contemporary Arab art rarely regard Oman as a contemporary artistic centre in the Gulf, and artwork previewed on an international scale from the Gulf region of the Arab world recently can be reduced to the stagnant works in the Emirati and ADACH pavilions of the 53rd Venice Biennale and the Edge of Arabia exhibition. Being the first contemporary art publication relevant to ‘Middle Eastern’ artistic practices to approach contemporary Omani art, the inclusion of these two reviews intends to provide an alternative yet exceptional glimpse into the contemporary artistic practices and production of the Gulf region in the Arab world.

Another critical feature included in Muraqqa’s launch issue is Doris Bittar’s analysis of the 53rd Venice Biennale’s Palestinian Pavilion. She examines the pavilion’s significance as a nationalistic and political platform, also reviewing the exhibited works. A commendable quality regarding Bittar’s approach to writing on the Palestinian Pavilion was her diplomatic and sensitive critique of the work, which displayed together was far too conceptual and not visually communicative enough to an audience unfamiliar with the exhibited artists. Thus said, it will be interesting to see how curatorial choices in the Palestinian Pavilion develop within forthcoming Biennales and to simply embrace its inclusion in the Biennale itself.

Relating Western fashion to its referencing of the ‘other’, Ana Finel Honigman surveys and delineates Orientalist references in upper scale Western fashion, and its significant impact permanently imparted onto Western fashion design. The first examination of its kind, Honigman’s piece merges the fields of high fashion and post-colonial studies.

Also, one aspect that intrigued me in the process of planning Muraqqa’s launch edition was non-Middle Eastern artists who depicted subjects directly relevant to the Middle East or within a Middle Eastern context that refrained from Orientalising them. The most critical of these artists’ work included in the launch edition are Langlands & Bell’s conceptual architectural representations of the Arab world and Shezad Dawood’s ‘Al-Sabbah Camera’ and ‘Al-Hallaj Camera’ works. My rather disparate gesture of incorporating articles of this nature was initially inspired by the paradoxical title of the Saatchi Gallery’s exhibition ‘Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East’, for 11 of the 21 artists were neither raised or resided in the region. I wanted to approach and emphasize issues surrounding cultural authenticity and diaspora in an indirect atypical fashion, and to permit reconsideration regarding notions of labeling contemporary art produced in the Middle East vs. contemporary art produced in a Middle Eastern context or by artists of Middle Eastern heritage whose artistic practice never occurred in the region.

One of the most intriguing editorials published in this edition is Reem Fekri’s ‘Simulacrums of Protest’, which placed Mark Wallinger’s installation ‘State Britain’ into the theoretical context of Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, also assigning its relevance to the contemporary Middle East. Asmaa Al-Shabibi’s review of the Abraaj prize/interview with Marwan Sahramani alluded to issues pertaining to art and patronage in the Middle East in her review of the prize and she also inquired Sahramani about displaying works with 'sexual' connotations in the Middle East, two subjects which are critical to contemporary Middle Eastern art discourse that are often overlooked.

The two featured interviews in this issue are Saleh Barakat’s correspondence with Samir Sayegh and my conversation with Afruz Amighi. In the Sayegh interview, the artist related a personalised perspective regarding modernisation and the hurrifya movement, and what is so intriguing about his work is that the abstract geometric ‘phonetic’ representations in the pieces are neither calligraphic or typographical yet can be distinguished as ‘script’. The interview with Afruz Amighi, the first exclusive interview with the artist published after she won the Jameel Prize this year, brought up innovations made by the artist, such as the assignment of conceptual value to Islamic ornamentation and her usage of non-figural representation in a figural context, and also issues surrounding Middle Eastern media representations, disapora and identity, amongst several others.

Alexander Barakat