Casting the Region in a New Light, through Its Art ; Diverse Show in Turkey, with Pieces from Jordan, Aims to Shift Stereotypes

By Fowler, Susanne | International Herald Tribune, March 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Casting the Region in a New Light, through Its Art ; Diverse Show in Turkey, with Pieces from Jordan, Aims to Shift Stereotypes


Fowler, Susanne, International Herald Tribune


The collection of works by 44 artists from Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan and the Palestinian territories aims to shift cultural stereotypes.

Khalid Khreis, a Jordanian artist, is on a mission to fight reductionist notions of contemporary Middle Eastern art.

As curator of an exhibition at the Pera Museum in Istanbul, running through April 21, he has included paintings, sculptures, engravings and ceramics by 44 artists spanning different styles and generations.

The works -- from Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan and the Palestinian territories -- have been drawn from the 3,000 pieces at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, where Mr. Khreis is director general.

"The Arab world is rich with its diverse ethnicities, beliefs, customs, traditions and cultures, all reflected in the choice of works for this exhibition," he wrote in the catalog. "It is a gift to the Turkish people that can hopefully change the stereotypes that naturally grow between different people as a consequence of accumulated misinformation and miscommunication."

The show, "Between Desert and Sea: A Selection from the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts," does not shrink from topics like cultural identity, popular revolt or the female form.

The main themes, Mr. Khreis said in a recent interview at the Pera, include abstract examinations of "the political issues, the social issues," using Arab calligraphy, motifs and symbols.

"Most of the artists, when they studied, studied in Western countries under Western rules," he said. "Once they came back to their countries, they start looking for their identity. So some of them are looking within the social issues; others within the heritage of Islamic art, or popular art."

Western-style easel painting was introduced to the Arab world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mr. Khreis wrote in the exhibition catalog, and art schools followed: in Cairo in 1908; Algiers in 1920; Tunis in 1923, Beirut in 1937, Baghdad in 1941 and so on, staffed by foreign instructors and later by local artists trained in Western techniques at art schools in European capitals like Paris and Rome.

"Hence, early Arab artists were influenced by Realism, Romanticism, Impressionism followed by Cubism and other 'isms,"' Mr. Khreis noted.

It was not until the 1950s that what he calls "a flux of Arab artists" started to create an identity within their own heritage, exploring traditional forms of expression like calligraphy.

These artists, he said, reacted then, as now, to regional and international events. One of his own works in the exhibition is a prime example. "Arab Spring 2," an acrylic painting on wood, using a bold spin on Pointillism, has a "political message," said Mr. Khreis, who studied art in Italy, Mexico and Spain.

"I start with points," he said, representing the mass of people who gathered in 2011 in Cairo in Tahrir Square to protest the government of President Hosni Mubarak. "You can see many people, demonstrations. At the same time, you can read it in a different way, it's like the cosmos. It free, open to interpretation."

The exhibition also includes hands-on work, like the interactive piece by the Moroccan artist Omar Youssufi that riffs on the sands of time and layers of civilizations in the Middle East. …

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