Exhibition about Zaha Hadid sparks controversy in the US amid Israel-Gaza War

Contemporary Arts Centre declines to publish letter in solidarity with Palestinians

Artist Hera Buyuktasciyan was inspired by this image of Zaha Hadid as a child. Photo: Hera Buyuktasciyan
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A row has opened up between the Contemporary Arts Centre in Cincinnati and the artists and curator of its exhibition celebrating the legacy of Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.

The museum in Ohio declined to publish a letter of solidarity with Palestine written by the artists and curator. They allege that the centre has not followed through on its promises to develop programming around the subject.

The exhibition, A Permanent Nostalgia for Departure: A Rehearsal on Legacy with Zaha Hadid, opened on October 22, with commissions by Hadid, as well as Rand Abdul Jabbar, Khyam Allami, Emii Alrai, Hera Buyuktasciyan, Andrea Canepa, Dima Srouji and Civil Architecture Studio's Hamed Bukhamseen and Ali Ismail Karimi.

The show celebrates Hadid’s work as part of the 20th anniversary of the art centre’s building. It is called the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art and was Hadid’s first museum commission.

On November 6, artist and curator Maite Borjabad Lopez-Pastor sent a letter to the director, Christina Vassallo, asking the centre “to uphold its institutional values by demanding an immediate ceasefire and vocalising its solidarity with the Palestinian anticolonial struggle for freedom and liberation from occupation and apartheid".

Artist Tai Shani, who has a concurrent solo show at the institution, also signed. They requested that the letter be circulated among staff, on the centre’s social media outlets and at the exhibition. They gave the museum a five-day deadline in which to do so.

In an email chain seen by The National, Vassallo responded by saying the letter did not capture the different views held by staff and the wider community. She said they could not publish it in the institution’s name.

“We embrace diverse perspectives, believing that their exchange benefits everyone,” Vassallo told The National. “Any statement we could craft, once released, would become static and unchanging during a complex geopolitical situation.”

She added that the Contemporary Arts Centre is organising programming that will “bring forward a number of valuable perspectives through our mission and expertise, which is art”.

However, the programming, which the Contemporary Arts Centre also referred to in its November exchange with the artists and curators, has yet to emerge. The exhibition closes on January 28.

The larger issue at stake is the extent of the reforms towards greater diversity that US institutions took on after the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

At the CAC, many of the artists explicitly responded to Hadid as an Iraqi architect. They understood the show’s premise and their inclusion to be part of the centre’s stated desire to work with artists of different backgrounds. However, the artists and curators felt they had been used as examples of diversity without being given the opportunity to speak out.

“It is not only complicit to remain silent but also hypocritical,” says Borjabad Lopez-Pastor, previously of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Guggenheim Bilbao.

The artists also claim the centre has done little to promote the show since it opened. The Contemporary Arts Centre disputes this.

Borjabad Lopez-Pastor's letter was eventually released by the publishing house Verso.

A Permanent Nostalgia for Departure

Borjabad Lopez-Pastor took the show’s title from a line from Etel Adnan, who wrote that Hadid-designed buildings as if she were always on the verge of leaving home for somewhere else. For the Spanish curator, the insight allowed her to expand Hadid’s legacy beyond that of a monographic show and towards a project of collaboration with artists, many of whom explore Hadid's biography as an architect from the Middle East.

The Lois and Richard Rosenthal Centre for Contemporary Art has a part to play in this story, as it was awarded to Hadid directly after she lost a competition for an opera house in Cardiff for reasons she later suggested were due to her background.

“For me, the elephant in the room is how can we discuss her as an Iraqi woman?” says Borjabad Lopez-Pastor. “That’s something I cannot claim or bring from her because she was very confined about how she would talk about herself.

“I cannot project things that she hasn't said, but I can invite the right people to use her legacy and bring it to be discussed within a different perspective, because the circles that she managed to conquer and occupy professionally were canonical male Western areas.”

Many of the works foreground site-specificity or bring back the artists' own childhood memories in works inspired by Hadid's biography.

Abdul Jabbar, who was raised in Abu Dhabi in an Iraqi family, looks at techniques of building collectively with earth in her Tekton (after Zaha, after Malevich) (2023). She used the geometric shapes that Hadid referred to as “tectonics” in her painting Malevich’s Tektonik (1977), part of her graduation project at the Architecture Association in London, and rendered these as sculptures.

Abdul Jabbar first experimented in Al Ain to build the shapes out of mud brick according to traditional Gulf methods, which are also used across Iraq. She then applied the same principle to the sculptures in Cincinnati, using the process of rammed earth to build the shapes of local soil and clay in the exhibition space with Ohio university students. Where Hadid’s buildings, made of glass and steel, could be anywhere, these artworks are literally made of their surroundings.

For Like an Avalanche Started by a Gentle Push (2023), Buyuktasciyan began with a photograph of Hadid as a child standing in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. She connected the fountain's cascade of water to the central feature of the CAC itself – its curving concrete ramp that Hadid called the building’s “urban carpet”. Hadid brought this typically horizontal element into the building, sweeping it upwards to stretch through the museum’s five floors.

In response, Buyuktasciyan created a two-storey carpet, woven out of beige, black, and tan, rendering Hadid’s concrete feature in the softer handiwork of textiles that she is known for. But as she was planning the work, she realised the carpet was too tall for her studio in Istanbul, and she borrowed a friend’s place on the outskirts of the city.

It happened to be in the Armenian neighbourhood of Tatavia where Buyuktasciyan herself had grown up. The work began incorporating homages to that diasporic enclave. She wove patterns inspired by Tatavia's architecture and topography into the carpet and in a separate series of collages, mixed textile cut outs with images of the neighbourhood.

The Contemporary Arts Centre building itself is another key motif. Peruvian artist Canepa hangs lightweight voile fabrics that enfold the building in new geometric patterns. Working with the quirks of the space that's devoid of parallel or perpendicular lines in the centre, she created three-dimensional paintings that hang and jostle from above.

Allami, an artist born in Damascus, created a sound composition drawing on mathematical measurements of the building’s facades and volumes. Installed in small speakers throughout the show, A Relational Music (rehearsal) (2023) then uses the building as its sound system, amplifying and carrying the sound across the rooms.

Alrai's architectural installation, A Ceremony of Spectres (2023), toys with how bodies move through space. The work's lumpy structures look archaeological, like history in the present, with lilies in vases that wilt and moulder through the course of the exhibition.

Other works peer into Hadid's background. Civil Architecture put together a mini exhibition of Hadid's work with that of Rifat Chadirji and Mohammed Makiya, the important Baghdad architects of the Modernist era, proposing a trio of Iraqi architects who had never before been considered as such.

And Srouji’s video installation, Dithyramb (2023), combines footage of Baghdad and Beirut from when Hadid lived there, in what the architect later said were some of her best times. In her “ode” to Hadid, the Palestinian artist overlays her video with sculptures based on the architect’s paintings, asking the audience to see through these elements to find images of happiness in the footage.

“Western media portrays those cities as places of destruction, but Dima sourced and sampled archival footage to represent these cities as places of life and joy,” says Borjabad Lopez-Pastor.

“There are ceremonies of graduation, daily life in the market, women in domestic situations – and then these moments are interrupted by footage of destruction. It becomes shocking, because you realise how much life existed before, and it resists the normalisation of images of destruction. For Dima, as a Palestinian, it became very personal in how she managed the narrative of joy and life while showing images of destruction.”

The context of the siege in Gaza has brought the exhibition into a more explicitly political dimension, and highlights, at the very least, the competing interests and goals at play in the process of decolonisation.

At the same time, the exhibition’s bitter aftermath also returns the show to its central subject. It gestures towards the challenges Hadid must have navigated, working in the West during the Gulf and Iraq Wars, and underscores the complexity of these negotiations – both politically as well as emotionally.

Updated: January 06, 2024, 10:59 AM