First Paradise Then the World
Two Exhibitions in Paris
Lost in Paradise at Loft Sévigné (14–25 November, 2012) brings together five contemporary artists of differing cultural and religious backgrounds to explore the role of spirituality in their practices. Organized by A&E projects, which specialises in contemporary art from China, India and Iran, curators Arianne Levene and Églantine de Ganay invite audiences to read deeper meanings into works, some of which have never been previously seen in France. On the choice of artists - Reza Aramesh, Shezad Dawood, Idris Khan, Ariandhitya Pramuhendra and Michal Rovner - De Ganay stressed the importance of giving a platform to lesser known practitioners, wishing to move away from what the curators call 'simplistic' views of art from Asia and the Middle East.
However, for those engaged with artistic practices of and about the region, many of these works will be familiar. Reza Aramesh occupies a substantial part of the gallery space with his large black and white 'action' photographs: images of actors restaging poses sourced from media images depicting men subjected to violent humiliation. These poses are decontextualised in that Aramesh staged these photographs in Rodin's Museum in Paris; a juxtaposition of civilization and violence, the sacred and the secular, that makes this setting so pertinent. Amongst the photographs is a sculpture by Aramesh; the figure's knees positioned in a quasi-devotional pose, his hands behind his head. Inspired by seventeenthcentury Spanish hagiographic sculptures, a descriptive plate indicates that the sculpture's pose was informed by an image of an 'unidentified Arab prisoner' captured by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank in 1967.
One of the key themes of Lost in Paradise is the idea that, despite the use of religious symbolism in their work that is more associated with spirituality than religion, these artist's resist definition by religion or ethnicity. With roots in Islam, Idris Khan claims to be disconnected from the beliefs and practices that informed his childhood. Nevertheless, his text-based works Yaseen (2011) and No. 10-21 Stones (2011) make clear references to verses from the Qur'an, both alluding to the Ramy al-Jamarat, the ritual stoning of the Jamarat (which signifies the devil) during the Hajj pilgrimage. Similarly, although Indonesian artist Ariandhitya Pramuhendra does not consider himself a practicing Christian, his charcoal self-portraits, See No Evil (2011) and The Faith In My Hand (2012), are laden with Christian symbolism as if his religious background has become his only means of self identification.
This sense of conflicted identity can also be detected in the work of Michal Rovner, whose work presents a female, Israeli perspective on spirituality. In Rovner's case, her art is frequently assumed to reflect the political turmoil that surrounds her, something that happens often with artists from or working in Palestine and Israel. Yet though she asserts her work is about the 'human situation' rather than the political, her pieces are arguably the strongest on show, examining historical and contemporary mark making whilst dealing with notions of migration, history and identity.
Finally, in his neon works, Shezad Dawood calls into questions the seen and the unseen, the real and the allegorical, the urban and the otherworldly. The taxidermy birds for which he is known for take on a mystic symbolism within the context of this exhibition, whilst his glowing tumbleweed, The All Forgiving (Al-Ghafour) (2007), refers directly to one of the ninety-nine names of God in Islam and the Jewish symbol of the burning bush.
Also showing in Paris to the 3rd of February is 25 Years of Arab Creativity (25 ans de créativité arabe), an exhibition at the Institut Du Monde Arabe (IMA) celebrating its 25th anniversary. Established in 1980 by 18 Arab countries along with France so as to disseminate information about cultural and spiritual values in the Arab world, the IMA's Pan Arab show is an extensive examination of creativity from the 1980s to the present. In this well integrated selection of video and film pieces by forty artists including Ammar Bouras, Ali Cherri and Sami Al Turki, whose bleak film Running (2008) makes for a captivating short inspired by Carl Jung's words: 'You meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it', emerging artists are presented alongside more prominent names, from Nadia Kaabi Linke and Ahmed Matar to established Egyptian painter Adel El-Siwi and his compatriot Khaled Hafez.
Of the works on show, there is Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul's large canvas Dream 43 (2011), which Dahoul painted in his studio amidst the Syrian government's ongoing bombardment of Damascus. Dahoul was filmed via webcam while making this painting, his creative process streamed to the outside world online, and now archived by his gallery, Ayyam. The final product is an acrylic on canvas: a reclining figure whose solitude is reminiscent of the artist's own isolation in his studio as he painted the image. Meanwhile, Lebanese artist and architect Nadim Karam places what he calls his 'urban toys' both outside the Institut's doors and within, including Closets and Closets (2012); seven human-sized metal sculptures mounted on a wall inside the museum space to represent the seemingly opposing notions of dreams and war.
Both Karam and Dahoul are represented by Ayyam Gallery, which plans to open a new space in London in January 2013 with an inaugural exhibition showcasing installations and paintings by Karam. For Ayyam's founder, Khaled Samawi, it is time for Ayyam's roster of predominantly Syrian artists to be exposed to a wider public, explaining how these artists deserve to be appreciated on an international platform. Samawi expresses a similar desire for a more global perspective that fuels the exhibitions in Paris organized by A&E projects and the IMA: both attempting the ambitious task of increasing the understanding of contemporary art from across the Arab and Muslim world.