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Platform for discussion010

Where to Now? Shifting Regional Dynamics and Cultural Production in North Africa and the Middle East

Iftikhar Dadi
1 June 2016

The past few years have witnessed dramatic transformations in the Middle East and North Africa – the region has experienced political instability, popular uprisings, and revanchist authoritarianism on the one hand, and vibrant contemporary practice supported by relatively new institutions on the other. Much contemporary practice has been responsive to these upheavals, prompting Ibraaz in Platform 010 to note that 'visual culture [has] increasingly staked its aesthetic claims on socio-political and historical realities – be it in terms of documenting conflict or engaging in so-called activist art.' While these modalities were stressed earlier on by artists focusing on the Lebanese Civil War and on Palestinian dispossession, they now appear to be dominant across the region. They are characterized by indexicality; corroboration of evidence (even if the putative historical event is fictional or cannot be agreed on); conceptual activation of archives in a minor key (in the Deleuzian sense); and output that is media, performance, and installation based. It has energized artistic subjectivities towards critical demarcation of social dislocations, which has been extremely valuable. I do not wish to be misunderstood as devaluing these hard-won achievements in the critique that follows.


Firstly, even as we witness enormous tragedies unfolding in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and other countries, that demand artistic witnessing, nevertheless other themes have been occluded by a sole focus on violence and dispossession. The critique of nationalism, neoimperialism, and neoliberal capitalism also remains necessary, but by now it appears to have been 'played out' when addressed by the modalities outlined above. However, vast transformations are occurring in numerous MENA societies – changes in agricultural and urban ecologies; new types of informalized economies; growing scripturalization of Islamic practice; tensions between migrants, various linguistic and ethnic groups and diverse religious affiliations; traffic between the projection of folk authenticity and mediatized popular cultures; and changes in familial structures and sexual modes that may not necessarily map on to contemporary Western practices – just to notate a few themes. But these are addressed only tangentially by very few artists.


Secondly, the virtual absence of generational dialogue among artists of the MENA region, whether discursively or through artistic form, is remarkable. Contemporary artistic practice that remains shackled to indexicality and evidence is salutary in its critical thrust. But it seems unable to work with, or even productively against, earlier imaginative artistic modalities that were characterized by allegory, metaphor, abstraction, and rigorous studio practice. This is possibly because contemporary artists understand modernism of the region to be largely outmoded and irrelevant. But artists of an earlier generation also lived through their own experiences of upheaval and social conflict. Inability to thoughtfully engage with the lineages of regional artistic forms further flattens contemporary practice into dominant modalities of the eternal present.


Thirdly, an agenda for contemporary art fashioned primarily through curatorial and artistic training in the UK, or in tactical spaces in other parts of the region, or by recognition primarily from art institutions in Europe and the Gulf, will be unable to meaningfully engage with specific regional lineages. This amnesia extends to institutions of artistic training, local exhibition histories, and engagement with older museums and collections. Where are artists being trained in the region? Is it worth examining what these institutions teach and how these can be made more effective, whether through formal means or through informal tactical intervention? Where did artists look regionally for ideas, and in which spaces did they exhibit? Are local museums hopelessly moribund or can something be salvaged from them? Is knowledge of regional history (understood critically) that extends into the premodern era salient for energizing practice today? What is the relation between 'tradition' and contemporaneity? Are such question being posed and debated?


Of course, I do not wish to be misunderstood as arguing for nativism or closure. But the specific history of the region matters deeply, as factual evidence, but even more so in terms of identifying resources that can be transformed and activated in new ways today. As long as one remains vigilant to claims of closures based on authenticity or nationalism, a robust regional dialogue can function as a vital platform to bring thinkers and practitioners together to critically explore shared issues.

Iftikhar Dadi

is Associate Professor at Cornell University in the Department of History of Art. He also served as Chair of the Department of Art (2010–14). His research examines the modern and contemporary art of Asia, the Middle East, and their diasporas. Another research interest is media and popular culture with reference to ongoing socio-aesthetic transformations in South Asia. Dadi serves on the editorial and advisory boards of Archives of Asian Art journal; Bio-Scope: South Asian Screen Studies journal; Art Journal (2007–11); and the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell. He also serves as an advisor to the Hong Kong based organization Asia Art Archive. Co-curated exhibitions include Lines of Control (with Hammad Nasar and Nada Raza) on partitions and borders (Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell, 2012 and Nasher Museum at Duke, 2013). As an artist he collaborates with Elizabeth Dadi; they have shown widely internationally.

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