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Barjeel Art Foundation At London’s Whitechapel Gallery
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Barjeel Art Foundation At London’s Whitechapel Gallery

Picture of Dominika Cecot
Updated: 24 April 2017
The Whitechapel Gallery recently opened the first of a series of four exhibitions called ‘Imperfect Chronology’, which is the biggest display of modern Arab art in the United Kingdom. Presented by the Barjeel Art Foundation — ‘barjeel’ meaning ‘wind catcher’ or an air cooling tower — this metaphoric name implies cooling things down to allow a clear-minded reflection. We take a look at how this exhibition allows us to discover modern Arab art through aesthetic reflections.
Kadhim Hayder, Fatigued Ten Hirses Converse with Nothing, 1965
Kadhim Hayder, Fatigued Ten Hirses Converse with Nothing, 1965 | Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

‘Debating Modernism I’ is currently on display, with drawings and paintings dating from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1967 by artists from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and more. This extremely rare selection of work comes from the Barjeel Art Foundation based in the United Arab Emirates. Founded in 2010 by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, who is described by social media as a commentator of the Arab affairs, this independent institution is home to some 100 works from over 60 different artists.

Ervand Demirdjian, Nubian Girl
Ervand Demirdjian, Nubian Girl | Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

The incredible collection holds works of modern art from the Arab world, aiming to contribute to the development of the art scene in the region; encompassing 22 countries with a total population of over 350 million, from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. The exhibition does not unify the artists under common identity, but rather displays the diversity of the Arab world as a collection of cultures exposed to the tensions of political and religious unrests, colonialism, censorship, modernity and other factors that influenced the artists. The show is hung in a salon-style room and showcases not a unified art movement, but a collection of works of different genres: portrait, landscape, abstract and others.

Dia Azzawi, Mask of the Pretenders, 1966
Dia Azzawi, Mask of the Pretenders, 1966 | Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery

In these extremely difficult times for the Arab people, it is very important to look at images that are different to ones presented to us daily in mass media and images that are disconnected from the notion of orientalism — which puts the Arab world in the ‘us-Other’ juxtaposition. The Arab heritage is being threatened from within; only a few months ago a 2000-year-old temple in the city of Palmyra was destroyed and this is only one of numerous barbaric attacks not only on the Arab people, but also on the world’s heritage. A lot of modern art pieces are currently under threat due to wars and looting within and around the region.

Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX, +44 (0) 20 7522 7888