Saleem Al-Bahloly (Johns Hopkins University), ”The Resurrection of Tradition, or A Critical Theory of the Artwork in the Postcolonial World”

The emergence of global modern art is predicated on the spread during the nineteenth-century of a certain variety of naturalism, largely in the context of reforms undertaken in response to military defeats suffered at the hands of European empires, and that involved the foreclosure of established artistic traditions. However, one feature of art practice we find across the postcolonial world in the twentieth-century is a an attempt by modern artists to recuperate forms or concepts from those foreclosed traditions, or from other traditions that came to be designated as craft or folk in distinction to oil painting. 

Aspiring to develop a critical theory of the artwork in a postcolonial context, this paper explores that re-encounter with tradition by focusing on the case of Iraq. It argues that the resurrection of tradition attempt by modern artists, after its earlier withdrawal—to use the language of the critical theorist Jalal Toufic—was part of a broad attempt to rethink representation in response to the country’s political history. That history was characterized by the formation of a liberal public sphere, with the introduction of new kinds of political action and speech; and by the subsequent collapse of that public sphere, an abnegation of political opinion, and disillusionment with leftist ideologies.  This paper traces how the transformation of the conditions of speech over the 1960s in Iraq re-shaped art practice and prompted a turn to tradition for new, esoteric means of expression.

Saleem Al-Bahloly is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. 

Sultan Al Qassemi (Barjeel Art Foundation), “Politics of Modern Arab Art”

From the Baathist regimes of Syria and Iraq to Egypt’s pan-Arabism under Gamal Abdel Nasser paintings and sculptures in addition to film and performance have been employed by various governments as a tool of soft power to propagate their policies to the public not only in their respective states but throughout the region and beyond. Despite this government patronage of the arts many artists have chosen to challenge their authorities through their art practices. This talk is an attempt to shed light on an often neglected dimension in the modern history of the Arab world.

Miriam Cooke (Duke University), “Curating the Syrian Revolution Online”

As soon as the Syrian Revolution broke out, artist-activists began to flood the Internet with their works. Numerous Facebook sites were opened and a Syrian graphic artist refugee designed and launched an extraordinary site. With its 22 categories and 22,000 items, Sana Yazigi’s The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution is the most comprehensive site featuring the works of artists and intellectuals in Syria and abroad. This paper will discuss the curation of this art within the context of brutal violence in Syria and neglect across the world.

Clare Davies (Metropolitan Museum of Art), “The Figuration-Abstraction Continuum, and the Case of “Oriental” Artist Hamed Abdalla (1917-1985)”

Throughout the 20th century, art from the Arab world was consistently defined as either figurative or abstract: a binary opposition rooted in a colonial logic of modernity that defined both positions as inherently deficient. Artists responded by emphasizing the interrelation of these terms within their practice. This paper presents the case of self-identified Oriental artist, Hamed Abdalla and his place within a broader history of art from the Arab world occupied with the re-negotiation of figuration and abstraction along a continuum. 

Linda Komaroff (Los Angeles County Museum), “Contextualizing Contemporary Middle East Art within an Historical Collection”

Once I doubted that there was any relationship between the contemporary art world and Islamic art. My awakening to the notion that the parameters of Islamic art could be expanded to encompass contemporary works by artists from, or with roots in, the Middle East is barely a decade old.  In 2006, I began to acquire contemporary art of the Middle East for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art within the context of our historical Islamic art collection. I continue to do so in the belief that the function, strength, and ultimate success and relevance of the collection should not be based solely on exploring this art as a means to better understand the past but as a way to build creative links between the past, the present, and the future. This presentation will consider the acquisition and exhibition of contemporary Middle East art at LACMA, which currently includes nearly 300 works.

Dina Ramadan (Bard College), “The Science of Art: Knowledge Production and Artistic Practices in Early 20th Century Egypt”

This paper focuses on the tensions that emerge on the pages of cultural journals between the concepts of benefit (fa’ida) and creativity (ibda‘) in analyses of Egyptian art during the early decades of the 20th century. Such tensions are informed by and reflect an approach to art that treats it as a scientific practice and educational tool. Read through a broader nahdawi framework—shaped by positivist, rationalist (social) scientific thought—art becomes an invaluable tool for documentation and preservation. This paper considers the growing importance of the museological and ethnographical in the classification and organization of art historical material during the late nineteenth century, and their impact on the assessment of modern artistic production in subsequent decades.

Alex Seggerman (Smith College), “Mystical Men and Magic Machines: Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar’s Technology of Enchantment”

This paper focuses on mysticism and technology in the painting of prominent postwar Egyptian artist, Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar (1925-1966). These two distinct styles of Gazzar’s short but prolific career express a consistent tendency that characterizes Egyptian art in the 1950s and 1960s. The enchantment of Gazzar’s paintings and drawings signals a larger shift away from explicit secular nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s to art that aimed to unify technology and faith. An heir to the surrealist Art et Liberté group, Gazzar’s early works forgo his academic training to depict the mysticism of the urban lower classes, characterized by nonsensical scenes of stocky figures with wild hair and talismanic symbols scratched into the paint’s surface.  In his work in the 1960s, bizarre and fantastic beasts, machines, and figures explode with innumerable wires and hardware. While technological in subject, these images, like their predecessors, continue to enchant the viewer.