Ahmed Mater’s depiction of the holy site of Makkah.
‘Position yourself on the periphery and see the centre more clearly’; this was a concept I discussed with Stephen Stapleton, Founder and Director of Edge of Arabia, an independent initiative bringing contemporary Middle Eastern art to the foreground, with a particular focus on Saudi Arabia. And this was very much the theme of the exhibition – taking a step back in order to get a fuller view, and not simply of an image, but of a concept, a state of mind.
Set up by a teacher, a doctor and a soldier, the Edge of Arabia initiative is about community; about representing the people. Showcasing this exhibition in a warehouse in East London’s multicultural Tower Hamlets reflects their focus on community spirit and breaking down barriers. Walking through Brick Lane on my way to the gallery, I was reminded of the tangible divide between the trend-setting East End hipsters and those attending Maghreb (evening) prayers at the East London mosque. No longer accustomed to the sound of prayer calls, the musicality of the Ada’an resonated in my ears. As a person of mixed heritage, particularly an English/Arab mix, I can very much relate to the messages being relayed at the exhibition and by its artists.
#COMETOGETHER features a mix of both established and emerging artists from the Gulf to Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. This is an initiative that provides opportunities to artists in regions of the world that do not get the same exposure or acclaim for their work as we are accustomed to in the Western world. The most inspiring aspect for me was the involvement of Arabic women in this exhibition, giving female Saudi artists the chance to make their work known and to have people view it and appreciate it just like any other artist. This is something rare, and something very special. The ethos of #COMETOGETHER is one of embracing people, embracing cultures and embracing opportunity.
The title #COMETOGETHER is an immediate reference to the world of social media, and a new form of communication. Many of us have become accustomed to conversing in a digital format, often within the restrained space of 140 characters: Twitter, Facebook – also contributed to the recent revolutions in the Arab world. Like the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring, the art speaks volumes, and in a multitude of different media forms. This was an all-encompassing exhibition, covering art, sculpture, light installations, film footage, photography, and the most creative use of incredibly unexpected materials. Muzamil Choudhury’s The Situation Room is a prime example of this. Taking the famous image of The Situation Room in Washington DC as news of Bin Laden’s death is relayed to the White House, Choudhury renders the pixelated image to create an unexpected work of art. Each pixelated dot is formed using pantone fabric-swathes from his family’s knitwear factory, and as the viewer takes a step back from the piece, the image begins to take shape and the full picture becomes visible.
Mounir Fatmi – Save Manhattan.
The warehouse space has an energy about it; our senses are struck by sound, by colour, by brightness and by darkness, by movement and by an eerie stillness. The Manhattan skyline by Mounir Fatmi, entitled Save Manhattan 03, an installation constructed in physicality by sound. The skyscrapers are recreated with stereo speakers; two tall sound docks represent the twin towers. The concert of noise is an indecipherable melody of audio snippets; the real sounds of horns, crashing cars, screeching tyres collide with the fictional sounds of explosions from dozens of Hollywood blockbuster films. The speakers cast a sharply defined shadow of the Manhattan skyline before September 11th, before the Arab-West divide became quite so deeply defined.
Completely juxtaposing this divide is Fayçal Baghriche’sBlue Globe.The globe spins at such a speed as to erase all demarcations between countries, as continents merge and the boundaries between land and ocean become one. The globe is in eternal revolution; a simple concept with a powerful message. Similarly, Musaed Alhulis recreates a prayer mat using bicycle chains to weave the ‘fabric’ together. The work,Dynamicexpresses feelings of dynamism, of strength and a sense of freedom during prayer. Although chains are most oft associated with restraint, when used within a larger structure, (to aid the motion of a bicycle for example) they are no longer shackles. This is religion; it may seem regimented to the extent of imprisonment, and yet, liberation and enlightenment comes to those who believe in the power and freedom that religion can bring. Like art, it is all about perspective, and this lies in the eye of the beholder, in the heart of the believer.
But is this naive? In a world divided by religion, where religions themselves are divided by sectarianism, it is sometimes hard to see the beauty, which, like belief is entirely subjective. Some of the artwork I deemed beautiful at the outset, and yet on closer inspection it was dark and often disturbing. Ahmed Mater’s dramatic depiction of the holy site of Makkah is awe inspiring. Having visited the mosque on numerous occasions, I know that it is truly beautiful, and I may have been caught up in this memory when casting my eyes over the photograph, because when I really looked at the image, I felt unsettled. The sense of awe began to dissipate as I was struck by the manic scene of construction surrounding the magnificent mosque, a sea of cranes creating a new moving landscape of urbanisation, as the number of residential flats and Hilton Hotels begin to dominate the skyline.
Abdulnasser Gharem’s The Capitol Dome.
#COMETOGETHER. An irony that proves a point, a paradox that highlights a message, and a contrast that actually accentuates the underlying similarities that exist between communities and between people. The masterpiece of the exhibition, for me at least, was Abdulnasser Gharem’s The Capitol Dome. Not only is this a stunning creation, it is utterly poignant.The piece is a replica of The Capitol Dome in Washington, held up by Thomas Cranford’s nineteenth century depiction of the armed goddess of Freedom. Freedom is a representation of both a host, and also an armed guard, reminding me of the saying: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The dome’s interior resembles a mosque; an intricate mosaic of Islamic and neo-classical architectural styles adorn its walls. The rich, angular Arabic designs are in stark contrast to the smooth, white curves of the dome’s exterior. Gharem is responding here to the merging of cultures, the spreading of democratic Western values across the Arab world, and equally to the electoral successes of Islamist parties across North Africa in recent months. Boundaries are merging and borders will continue to be crossed, no matter what the dangers involved may be. These are times of great uncertainty, of conflict and disparate belief systems. And yet #COMETOGETHER is proof that this juxtaposition of contrasting elements can be incredibly powerful and inspiring. Proof that out of this disparity can come something beautiful.