A maelstrom of soldiers, women and carcasses confront viewers as they walk into The Project Space at NYU Abu Dhabi. With beheaded horses, wailing figures and soldiers with their swords raised high – ready to deliver killing blows – the painting by Lebanese artist Marwan Sahmarani is supposed to raise a poignant question: how do people reach a point where they destroy their homeland and each other?
Entitled Houroub (Wars), the painting is derived from the artist's experience of growing up in war-ravaged Lebanon. It is the first artwork visitors will see at the student-curated exhibition in NYUAD's auxiliary gallery at the Art Centre. Like the other 17 artworks being exhibited, the painting is part of Minister of State Zaki Nusseibeh's private collection.
"Lebanon has seen some major upheavals in its recent history," Nusseibeh tells The National. "The civil war that began in 1975 and lasted for 25 years fractured the social fabric of the country. Sahmarani saw all that. He watched Lebanon disintegrating. It was part of his upbringing. Sahmarani's painting is an insight to his experience, a powerful rendition of his upbringing."
Nusseibeh has been collecting art for decades
Nusseibeh is a passionate art collector, after first beginning to procure works more than five decades ago, during his days as a student at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s. He now has so many pieces that even he doesn't know the exact number in his collection, but a comprehensive database is being drawn up to take stock of it all.
"The first works I bought were Orientalist paintings, which were inexpensively attained at the time," Nusseibeh says. "Now, I try to focus more on modern and contemporary works by artists from the Mena region, works that best represent the issues of the region. I honestly don't know how many artworks I have. Most of them are housed in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi."
It fell upon a group of 15 student curators to go through the stockpile and try to draw a central theme, so it could go on display. Over the course of three months, the students rifled through Nusseibeh's collection, which includes more than 400 works, to find a selection of pieces that resonated with them. The 18 works that were selected became the basis of Go Back to Move Forward, the title of the NYU Abu Dhabi exhibition.
How does one curate such an important art collection?
Nusseibeh says he is thrilled with the result of the students' work. "Students regularly came to Al Ain and surveyed the exhibition," he says. "This is what art is about. It is meant to bring people together, to inspire and challenge them, to enable young minds to envision a brighter future.
“I think art should be public and not be private, so whenever I can I let people come and see the collection. Artists from Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi regularly come by to survey the works.”
But the students admit that it was a challenge to reach an agreement on theexhibition. "We changed the theme about three times," one of the student curators, Hessa Al Nuaimi, says. "It was important to do the works justice, to try to be faithful to each of them while thinking about the whole."
Another student, Nada Ammagui, admits it was a challenge to settle on 18 pieces that spoke to each of the students. "We looked at hundreds of works," Ammagui says. "It took some time and a lot of rethinking to finally decide which of the artworks to put in the exhibition. We saw that all the works revolved around the theme of the collective memory, the necessity of going back to move forward."
For that reason, the theme the students decided on was actually inspired by one of the artworks on show.
The theme reflected the turmoil in the Middle East
The piece, by British artist Idris Khan, who credits his obsession with rhythm and repetition to growing up as a practising Muslim, shows a series of nine stamped music sheets. Each are individually framed, the melodies in them rendered illegible by a blur of white text. A few notes peek out from the edges of the blue but, for the most part, their content is indecipherable. The piece is called Go Back to Move Forward.
"The notes in Khan's artwork are from an opera by Richard Wagner titled Lohengrin," Nusseibeh explains. "I am passionate about Wagner and this opera is an especially moving one. The story is based on a German folktale but I think it reflects issues in the Middle East well, especially with its narrative of war and a society divided by political turmoil. But there is hope, hope that balance will be restored and that justice will prevail."
The story of Lohengrin revolves around a usurper who accuses his niece, Elsa, of killing the natural heir to the throne, who is also her brother.
Khan frequently uses rubber stamps, a technique that has evolved over the years of layering photographs, calligraphy and texts. The artist’s use of calligraphic text to muddle the Wagner opera embodies his fascination with repeated layering. “By using lines borrowed from poetry and philosophy to superimpose the Wagner opera, Khan established a mythical bond between the texts,” Nusseibeh says.
There is a sense of discomfort that is elicited when you take in the collection.
'Students offered alternative views on the art pieces'
Another noteworthy artwork is a nine-minute film by Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour. The artist reimagines Palestine as a skyscraper where each floor houses a Palestinian city, including Ramallah and Gaza, and its inhabitants.
"The film is called Nation Estate," Nusseibeh, who was born in Jerusalem, says. "With it, Sansour depicts the sad present of Palestine, of people living under occupation and in exile. The work examines a Palestinian state that has run out of territory and has become cooped up in a building, the wealth of its history segmented into the floors of a single building. Each floor guards the rich culture and heritage of Palestine, or what traces of it remain. Sansour often uses dystopic and futuristic scenes to convey her message. She has taken the science fiction genre and made it her own."
The student curators decided to place QR bar codes beside each of the paintings so visitors can use their smartphones to access alternative interpretations of the artworks and not simply those offered by the curators. "We thought it was important to present various interpretations of the work and not just a single authoritative one," student curator Lee Hyun Choi says.
Professor Salwa Mikdadi, who teaches art history at NYUAD, guided the students as they undertook the challenge of selecting artworks and finding a theme to conceptually bind them. This is the second time students from Mikdadi's curatorial practice course have put on an exhibition from Nusseibeh's private collection. "We studied various approaches to curatorial practice and theory," Mikdadi says.
“Curation is a relatively new role. At first, curators were simply keepers of art, whereas nowadays it seems like they’ve attained star status in the art world. That could be a good thing, it could inspire a lot of students to pursue it as a career.”
However, Mikdadi says there is also a responsibility in art curation. "It's important not to rely just on the authoritative interpretation of the curator," she says. "We learnt that in the class. By using QR codes, students offered alternative views on the art pieces. I thought it was a really smart way of challenging the curator's authoritative voice.
“They did well and I particularly liked the theme they came up with – reflecting on the regions past to explore the present. It’s a theme that has garnered considerable interest recently in the curatorial world.”
The curatorial class exhibition Go Back to Move Forward will be at the Project Space at NYU Abu Dhabi until Saturday, December 14