At the “Arab Presences” exhibition, politics takes precedence over art

Paris. The title of the exhibition is clear: “Arab presences, modern art and decolonization. Paris 1908-1988”. It indicates a desire to reread modern Arab art through the prism of political history. The three curators, Odile Burluraux, Morad Montazami and Madeleine de Colnet, believe that an exhibition cannot “dissociating art history and political history”, a bias that is coupled with a desire to exhibit works that are rarely shown. Works of art and archives intertwine in a journey which highlights the centrality of Paris in the lives of Arab artists, from the angle of their political commitments (on the left). The labels of the works thus restore the political context more than the aesthetic evolution – except in the first section.

The ambiguous positioning of Arab artists

The attempts of Egyptian artists to free themselves from European influence in the 1920s and 1930s are well illustrated (Mahmoud Mokhtar, Georges Hanna Sabbagh, [voir ill.]) as well as the support they received in Paris (by the Bernheim-Jeune gallery). Morad Montazami recognizes a “ambiguity” in the artists' career, because they were trained in colonial art schools whose teaching they contest, while living in Paris where colonialism is expressed publicly. The Arab Nahda and Egyptian surrealism reflect this intellectual tug of war from the 1920s to the 1940s, even in the salons and colonial exhibitions in which Arab artists participated. The central role of the Beaux-Arts of Paris also emerges clearly through the works of Iraqi artists including Jewad Selim [voir ill.]founder of the Baghdad Group.

The exhibition takes an even more political turn with the anti-colonialist movements, even if the issues of Lettrist abstraction (hurufiyya) and Arab modernism are raised: do the works serve an art history purpose or are they- do they support a political story? The commissioners claim both, but specify that there is “many more works in the exhibition than archival documents”. Odile Burluraux adds that it is possible to visit this exhibition “focusing solely on the artwork”. However, there is a tendency to favor the documentary aspect of the works, such as the painting by André Fougeron (1954) representing “North African” workers in a shantytown. Likewise, the portraits of artists taken by photographer Ida Kar in Paris have the status of documents and not works of art.

With the Algerian independence movement, the exhibition combines art and politics with works by French artists committed to the left (Jean de Maisonseul, Jean Sénac) and archive photographs by Mohamed Kouaci, objects of a recent rediscovery. This section has two walls of political posters created by Arab artists in France. Morad Montazami considers that the poster in the 1960s and 1970s is “a political-artistic medium” which takes on its full meaning “in the context of Third Worldism”. Whether defending the FLN, the PLO or immigrant workers, these posters bear witness to the militant activities of Arab artists in Paris, including in May 1968 (Farid Belkahia, Rachid Koraïchi). The accumulation of posters and leaflets, however, shows political affinities more than artistic production itself.

The next room dedicated to the Lebanese War and the “Arab apocalypse” of 1967 (according to the title of Etel Adnan's poetic work) balances works and documents with, among others, photographs by Fouad Elkoury taken in Lebanon in the 1980s and several leporellos by Etel Adnan: Paris appears here implicitly in personal trajectories.

Exile and immigration

The exhibition highlights certain artists' trajectories, including that of the Syrian Youssef Abdelké who arrived in France in the 1980s: drawings, archive films and letters exchanged with his partner Hala Abdallah bear witness to the difficulties of exile.

The tone is different at the end of the exhibition by returning to the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris itself which, in the 1970s and 1980s, exhibited numerous artists from immigrant or exiled backgrounds, notably Iraqis in 1976. Videos of songs by Rachid Taha (from the group Carte de Sejour) punctuate this somewhat disjointed end of the journey which focuses on social and political history (the “march of the Arabs” of 1983). For the commissioners, despite “a classic museum display, the exhibition also presents extracts from comic strips and clips by Rachid Taha side by side with a work by Gouider Triki”– a new dialogue.

If the exhibition begins in 1908 with the creation of the Fine Arts of Cairo, it closes just before the Gulf War of 1991, a geopolitical event: it is therefore no longer a question here of art history. Despite questionable choices, this abundant exhibition breathes new life into Arab artistic networks and their Parisian supporters, thanks in particular to archives from private collections rarely exhibited.

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