Two cultures, both united and divided by their beliefs and histories, are laid bare in an impressive new exhibition Visual Art Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East Saatchi Gallery LONDON
It often pays to go through exhibitions backwards, the Saatchi Gallery's Unveiled being a case in point. Its final work is a piece called Flag #19 by Sara Rahbar, a tattered take, in Persian brocade, on the Stars and Stripes. Whatever else it may be about - accompanying literature suggests "protest against the current wars" - Flag #19 is about Jasper Johns. Which is to say its subject is American cultural hegemony, the way in which the US flag and Johns's Flag have become twin emblems of world domination. Whether Rahbar's attitude to this is celebratory or critical is hard to say. Her Flag is pretty and battle-scarred; or, maybe, tacky and clapped out, depending on how you look at it.
It is a good place to start a visit to an extraordinarily good show. Unveiled is an exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern art, Rahbar being Iranian. Or rather, like her flag, not quite. Born in Tehran in 1976, she has been in exile in Britain and America for most of her life, which means she is both a victim of Western domination and complicit in it. She is not alone in this. Only eight of the 19 artists in this show actually live in the Middle East, and only two of the seven women. (For them, presumably, "unveiled" has a more specific meaning.) The rest - notionally Algerian, Lebanese, Iraqi or Palestinian - make their art in Paris or Berlin or New York.
So Rahbar's flag tells an uneasy truth that runs throughout this show. In these globalised times, to be an artist is to be a Western artist, by which I mean that the traditions and styles and materials and techniques of the work in Unveiled are Euro-American ones. If the devil has all the best tunes, the Great Satan has also cornered the market in visual representation. A couple of Unveiled's participants play games with Middle Eastern art history - Hayv Kahraman, for example, who makes blown-up Persian miniatures in Phoenix, Arizona - but the preoccupations of these young painters and sculptors are the same as they would be if they had gone to art school in London. (And several of them did.)
Whether these two facts are connected - whether the power of the work in Unveiled suggests that the act of making it had an extra charge for the makers concerned - I cannot say. Nor can I tell you if the preponderance of painting in the show reflects a parallel bias in contemporary Middle Eastern art-production. But I can say that there are few false steps in this exhibition - that the work in it is uncommonly grown-up, well-made, …