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

Nada Shabout
6 November 2013

As an art historian my interest in archives is as historical records of primary sources and documents that go beyond mere inventory, but as sites of epistemology, power, knowledge and making meaning. On a practical note, one of the main problems with modernity in the Arab world is the lack of credibility, criticality and scrutiny in understanding, presenting, and evaluating its nature and objects. A major contributor to this problematic is the lack of archives to facilitate an understanding of its evolution, which thus necessarily distorts the construction of its historical context. Archives as an active site of remembering would give us the tool to challenge the grand narrative produced by the state, and imagine alternative, globally-connected local narratives.


Pre-modern and modern archives are seemingly not available or accessible in the Middle East, which misleadingly presents the contemporary as rootless and ephemeral, and consequently heightens the question of identity in the region. Archives thus have the ability to open up new and liminal spaces of possibilities, readings, interpretations and constructions. For example, understanding the historical context of the modern moment in the Middle East is possibly capable of resolving the notion of belatedness in modern art. 


Moreover, political instability and wars in the Middle East made loss a much more probable reality, and memory all the more imperative. A great example is the case of Iraq's heritage in general, and modern art in specific. The destruction of the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad and its archive resulted in an immediate gap in the memory, particularly since its history was never fully constructed. During the long years of sanctions and isolation, a generation of Iraqi artists was fully nurtured inside of Iraq on the little evidence they had of their modern history through the work of their teachers and modern masters. Since 2003, however, a new generation is growing up in complete absence from that history following its destruction in the wake of the invasion. The fissure has caused a severe shift in Iraq's art history.


Since archives are part of the collective memory and its history, there seems to be an obsession with archives at the moment, including in the art world. This is not only true for scholars who are now able to locate and access some archives, but for artists as well. Despite their awareness of the significance of the content, artists' interest in the archives, however, is in their aesthetic and physical appearance as objects, not vessels, of information. Their incorporation of archives in their work as part of the process of making contemporary art necessarily blurs the line between art and documentation; between fiction and fact; between what is fleeting and enduring.


Archives provide insights into institutional and individual histories. In parts of the world where archiving has been a long and systematic practice, opening these archives to the public and artists is a logical step that in turn produces more archives. Hal Foster argues that artists making these archives physically present allows for their past uses to coexist with their future possibilities. In the Middle East, however, where the archives are only now becoming accessible, we need the time to deposit and unpack them. They need to be first deconstructed and decoded as text before their use as objects.


More often than not, artists use archives to produce beautiful objects that on the outset produce interventions by displacing the archive, and hence challenging the nature of documentation and their role. That, nevertheless, is also at times problematic, as it marginalizes and eschews the content. At this moment, I believe that the urgency with which art history of the region is faced compels a different approach to the archives, to prevent the loss of their historical significance and potentiality.

Nada Shabout

is an Associate Professor of Art History and the Director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Studies Institute (CAMCSI) at the University of North Texas, USA. She is the Consulting Director of Research at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar, a former member of the Board of Governors of the Cultural Development Center of the Qatar Foundation, and a long-term advisor at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. She led Mathaf's curatorial team of the inaugural exhibition Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art, as well as curated one of the two accompanying opening exhibitions, Interventions: A dialogue between the Modern and the Contemporary. Her teaching and writing interests are in the area of Arab and Islamic visual culture, theory and history, imperialism, Orientalism and globalization. She is the author of Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, University of Florida Press, 2007; co-editor of New Vision: Arab Art in the 21st Century, Thames & Hudson, 2009; and the founding president of the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art from the Arab World, Iran and Turkey (AMCA). She is the founder and project director of the Modern ArtIraq Archive (MAIA), which documents and digitizes modern Iraqi heritage, particularly the collection previously held at the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art.

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