The new show at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC asks a simple question: why has there been so little recognition of Arab-American art in the US?
“If you look at the different ethnic communities in the US whose art scenes have made significant progress in the last 20 years, we would think of the Asian American community, the Chicano community, or the black community,” says Maymanah Farhat, curator of Converging Lines: Tracing the Artistic Lineage of the Arab Diaspora in the US.
“It’s wonderful, in terms of their being further included and historicised. But the Arab-American artistic community is still uncharted territory within the larger American narrative.”
While these groups have had clear centres of activity, such as Chicago among black artists or Los Angeles among the Chicano community, Arab-American artists have been spread out across the country, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dearborn, Chicago, New York, Washington, DC and elsewhere. They have not coalesced into a singular movement, which makes it difficult to credibly draw contours around Arab American art.
Instead of searching for an Arab-American “style”, Farhat emphasises the American context in which Arab-American artists were working. It’s an astute appreciation of how the identity of an artist can dominate the way the art is seen. The tendency to portray Arab-American artists as Arab rather than a hybrid community keeps these artists from becoming part of the American story – and holds them within an Arab identity which tends to be politically coloured.
“We're rendered either very visible in terms of political positioning and profiling, but then also very invisible when it comes to our cultural contributions,” says Farhat, who grew up in California and has a Lebanese father.
“Arabs in America are really affected by the political discourses of the time. 9/11 was a definitive moment of reckoning for so many of us because we were hit with profiling and hyper visibility. And before that, in shows from the 1990s that took place with Arab-American women artists, a lot were around the idea of veiling and these very Orientalist tropes – which is not what the artists themselves were interested in.”
The show begins with a carefully drawn study of a face, part of a book project by Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet and artist who lived in Boston in the early 1900s. Gibran’s inclusion points to the longevity of the Arab-American community in the US; in his famous letter to young Syrians, from 1926, he talks about the pride of belonging both to the region that produced Damascus and Byblos and being part of the new American civilisation.
This mixed identity establishes the leitmotif for the show, which progresses generationally onwards through its 17 artists. Two silkscreened prints by late Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata, who was exiled in 1967, are exemplary of his luminous, colour-soaked and mathematically rigorous calligraphy.
His work is largely looked at for his innovations in this field or, as at a 2020 conference at the University of Cambridge, how he sits within the tradition of Arab book-making (dafatir) and the ready crossover between poetry and art that is common in Arab artwork.
The works in Converging Lines acknowledge these themes while also drawing out his American context.
“Kamal Boullata lived in Washington, DC from the 1960s until the 90s,” says Farhat. “He is very much steeped in the Washington colour school. He did his MFA at The Corcoran School of Art, and you can easily see the vibrancy of Alma Thomas, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland in his work. But then he was also creating works that are very Islamic, and he was very proud of his own personal cultural history of being from Jerusalem, and all the magnificence of what that means.”
Similarly, for Lebanese artist Huguette Caland who worked in Los Angeles from 1987 to 2013, Farhat points to the influence of West Coast artists such as James Turrell and Ed Moses. Turrell’s attempt, for example, to capture the soft California air has clear parallels to Caland’s extraordinary ability to render light and colour as three-dimensional, curved and ready to hold.
Other artists in the exhibition mix American references alongside Arab ones as a means of picturing their dual belonging – a complex of emotions familiar to all immigrant families.
Iraqi artist Nazar Yahya, who now lives in Houston, painted the diptych Homage to Twombly (2012) with streaked drips making their way down the canvas from great, flower-like bursts that evoke Cy Twombly’s Rose series from the late 2000s.
Behind the washes of colour is the image of an Iraqi woman, who appears both commandingly present but also effaced by the colours on show.
Chicago-born artist Yasmine Nasser Diaz made a series of collages based on her experience of visiting her family in Yemen in the 1980s, mixing both images of the old city of Sanaa with other interests of the time for a 15-year-old, such as Salt-N-Pepa and Madonna.
There is a slight irony in the fact the Middle East Institute is underlining the American-ness of these artists, but the result is a greatly enriched understanding of their work. And in recognising the context in which these artists appeared, the show also tackles the staggered and even contrived way they entered the art world mainstream.
Farhat notes, for example, how Caland and Etel Adnan were partly received as previously unknown Arab artists in their recent shows at western institutions. A 2015 review of Caland’s work in the magazine frieze, for example, called the work of the artist, then aged 83, a “welcome revelation”. But these artists were known for decades to both the Arab community and the American artists among whom they worked. But, says Farhat, they simply lacked advocates.
“There aren’t many curators. There aren’t many art historians,” she says. “When you don’t have that level of institutional support, and you don’t have that push from the market, from institutions, from activists, from scholars, it's hard to make any headway.
"The Arab-American literary scene has taken off in the last 10 to 15 years, and it’s not unusual now to see Arab-American writers participate in literary festivals in Brooklyn or in Los Angeles. But the visual artists, we just haven’t had the same kind of support.”
This is Farhat’s second exhibition for MEI, a think tank that opened an art gallery on its ground floor as part of its cultural programming. It’s not at the centre of the art world and one wonders how far this critique will travel beyond those who are already wrestling with its concerns.
But the gallery’s programming so far – such as an exhibition of Beirut protest photography and a much-needed look at Syrian contemporary art, curated by Farhat – has filled a substantial gap in the American institutional landscape and has made the site an important, if unexpected source of both advocacy and sensitive analysis.
Converging Lines: Tracing the Artistic Lineage of the Arab Diaspora in the US is at the MEI Art Gallery until Wednesday, November 17, 2021