"The destruction of material culture has been at the core of the violence in the region over the past 10 to 15 years," says Nora Razian, head of exhibitions at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. "What does that mean for communities when that happens? What does it mean to rebuild as a community? How do these objects become stand-ins for the communities? And how do these objects tell stories in other ways?"
Answering these questions, the art centre's latest show, Phantom Limb, performs what it calls "archaeology in reverse" – focusing on the value system that makes some artefacts worthy over others, and addressing the long and painful history of a loss of heritage from the Arab region. The emotional aspects of looting and theft is given pride of place, for example in the title chosen – "Phantom Limb", signalling the sensation of present absence – or in the fascinating video by Kader Attia that analyses trauma among survivors of conflict.
Razian shows how emblems of historical heritage have two roles: in a museum context, where they have often arrived courtesy of colonialism, looting and trade, and in a local context, where they function as a means for a community to preserve its memories for future generations. The former mostly takes precedence over the latter, as items of material culture enter public consciousness, and gain in value, through museum displays rather than everyday engagement and use.
To do its archaeology in reverse, Jameel Arts Centre has brought together artists who make faux or manipulated artefacts. In its best moments, the exhibition resembles a fever dream. There's enormous sand-coloured urns set upon eggs in sculptures by Lebanese artist Theo Mercier (Venus a l'Oeuf), which nicely contrast literal and metaphorical weight and fragility. There's the intricate jewellery rendered in soap-white 3D-printed plastic as stand-ins for treasure seized from Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, in the work of Pio Abad and Frances Wadsworth Jones, which gives off the air of the uncanny. And the tall, tapering columns placed on scuffed scaffolding, which suggest four displaced fingers of an elegant giant, in works produced in response to the lost Al Badi Palace in Morocco by the Palestinian artist Jumana Manna. These works subvert museum-worthiness, playing with codes of value and authority, whether by incompleteness, monumental scale or skewered monetary wealth.
However, the loss of cultural heritage is a huge subject, and the approach at times feels too scatter-shot to complicate already known narratives. This is exacerbated by the tendency of many of the works towards drama, like a scene set for a play. Another work by Mercier shows a jumble of masks lying on top of one another in a vitrine: these are the chipped and worm-eaten rejects from masks produced in East Africa for the European market. Lying on top of each other, they give the impression of the remains of a massacre, as the work's title puts it. It's an effective reminder of the barbarousness of western engagement in Africa, but also an unclear one: there is a line to draw between today's tourists and yesterday's colonialists, but that ignores the historical differences between them. "Massacre" is a loaded word for a work that's more clearly about economic dependence and repatriation claims.
Elsewhere the exhibition plays to its strengths: taking advantage of its roots in the region, more research-heavy works illuminate the relationship between individuals on the ground and the material heritage that takes flight from such places. Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabat shows 32 examples from his ongoing work Orthostates, in which he makes charcoal rubbings of the complex Neo-Hittite reliefs that were removed from Tell Halaf in Syria in the early 20th century and dispersed to museums across the West. As is common for Tabat, the work is layered, rendered complex by personal resonance: the excavations were carried out by diplomat and archaeologist Max von Oppenheim, for whom Tabat's great-grandfather served as private secretary.
Tabat has approached and travelled to the museums that now hold the nearly 200 works in order to make the rubbings, performing a pilgrimage that re-enacts both the journey of the artefacts from the region and, in the legal and logistical hurdles that he goes through, the legislative apparatus that administered the placement of these objects far from their site of origin.
In the case of Palestine, Razian also shows how archaeology is weaponised as a tool of occupation. Historical material culture "is a tool of reclaiming land, and is used to validate the occupation," she says. "How do Palestinian lives extend into the future when a lot of material culture is lost, or stolen, or ends up in Israeli museums? It's an extremely lived issue there."
Palestinian artist Benji Boyadgian has fashioned a wooden box with drawers in which he has reverently placed items he found in Wadi Al Shami, which the Israelis call the "Valley of Garbage". Here, discarded pieces – a small football, a coffee pot, a bicycle chain, a fragment of Ottoman pottery – are juxtaposed alongside the rich archaeological history of the region. They tell the everyday stories of occupation, modernisation and the recuperation of rural lands, as well as the differing attitudes between the two communities towards what lies on the ground.
The contrast between deep cultural wealth and contemporary poverty also clashes heartbreakingly in Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah's painting Untitled (All Is Well). Here Suleiman Mansour's famous painting Jamal Al Mahamel, of an old man carrying Jerusalem on his back, is being replicated, for circulation throughout Palestine. The painting is presented on an easel, and the window behind it shows Jerusalem itself, with only a sliver of it visible, and behind bars.
Phantom Limb is at the Jameel Arts Centre until Saturday, February 15, 2020