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What role can the archive play in developing and sustaining a critical and culturally located art history?

Ian Almond
6 November 2013

The idea of the art archive in the Middle East provokes a number of associations – some of them spiritual, some historical, some clearly political.


The Koran, in a sense, is the ultimate archive – the store of all things, out of which 'nothing has been left out' (6:38). Mirroring the all-comprehensiveness of God, the Koran is the infinite storehouse of images, the boundless container of all other entities, past, present and to come. In Sufism, the 'perfect man' (al-insan al-kamil) is often exhorted to become this all-embracing world of images ('alam al-mithal). In this sense, the art archive would be a catalogue of the many, finite attempts to make sense of the infinite. It would bring together and render historical the spray of these possibilities.


Some of the religiosity in this gesture would remain, even after considering the idea of the art archive in the Middle East in a soberly historical context. This would not merely be the (by now) standard Saidesque description of the archive as a trope from modernity, (in line with both Western imperialist and then (later on) nationalist programmes), an attempt to locate and preserve the essence of the nation in a particular museum or library. It would also be a profoundly anti-modern gesture, setting itself against the paleophobic tendencies of so many Middle Eastern secular nationalisms (the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has noted how the destruction of large parts of old Istanbul in the fifties and sixties turned many people's living rooms into museums, as they rushed out into the streets to salvage whatever memories they could from the rubble). The archive would not merely be a symbol of modernity – the anxiety to gather together the fragments of what has been broken and lost – but also a religious gesture, insofar as it would disagree with the modern direction of time, which the archive accepts and endorses.


However, a political reading of the art archive would be even more complex. On the one hand, they can be seen as obvious icons of capital, 'bought' for their international value as 'markers' of what cosmopolitan cities are and are not (Istanbul, Doha). The Turkish government's encouraging attitude towards contemporary art (at least, until very recently) could be read in this cynical fashion, ditto the near-ubiquitous presence of private capital (banks such as Yapi Kredi and Garanti) in the establishment of such venues. In a region which, like most other regions in the world, is busy destroying its history in the name of real estate or individual hybris (I am thinking not only of the recent levelling of Istanbul's historical Tarlabashi district to make way for townhouses and shopping malls, but also of Saudi Arabia's ongoing demolition of many of Islam's most historical sites), art archives would become examples of preservation and stasis.


The essence of an archive, although it may expand, lies in standing still. Although it is a bastard child of modernity, insofar as it records and thrives on loss and the fear of loss, it nevertheless generates a time that is always antithetical to the time of progress. It is the only aspect of an archive that may ever prove truly subversive; its very existence reminds us that destruction can always and everywhere take place.

Ian Almond

is Professor of World Literature at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University in Qatar. He received his PhD in English Literature from Edinburgh University in 2000. He is the author of four books, most recently Two Faiths, One Banner (Harvard University Press, 2009) and History of Islam in German Thought (Routledge, 2010), and over forty articles in a variety of journals including PMLA, Radical Philosophy, ELH and New Literary History.  He specialises in comparative world literature, with a tri-continental emphasis on Mexico, Bengal and Turkey. His books have been translated into eight languages, including Arabic, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Serbo-Croat, Persian and Indonesian. He is currently working on a history of Islam in Latin America.


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