Any visitor who traverses the manicured lawns and enters the grandiose entrance of the Singapore Art Museum this weekend will be met with one of the first exhibitions dedicated to artists from the Arab world ever to be hosted in South East Asia.
Terms & Conditions is a collaboration between Sharjah's Barjeel Art Foundation and the team at the museum. It is an attempt to start a debate about the universal concept of power that is presented through a regional eye.
“We always encounter terms and conditions,” says Mandy Merzaban, the guest curator of this show and the full-time curator and collections manager for Barjeel. “They are the fine print that guide us, whether in a contract between people or by dictating the relationship between countries. The concept for the exhibition was to discuss ideas of power and control.”
So, to begin this discussion, within the monumental surroundings of Singapore’s museum, Merzaban first concentrated on the narrative within the space. The museum is an impressive 19th-century building that was once a Catholic school and covers 10,000 square metres.
Once you enter, the gallery space splits. In the room to the left is a mantelpiece filled with Elshaab, Moataz Nasr's 25 ceramic figurines representing people who protested during the Egyptian revolution. Beside them stand seven larger-than-life handblown Murano glass microphones by the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed and a small paper drawing by Huda Lutfi bearing the words Democracy Is Coming.
"They all represent a kind of fragility," explains Merzaban. "In Abdessemed's piece, the microphones are tall and out of reach, so there is an invitation to speak but it is fragile. Only an elite few can reach that level of public expression and it is a kind of luxury. The title Fatalité for me illustrates the death of the human voice."
Nasr’s figurines are also delicate from a materialistic point of view. The fact that they sit on a mantelpiece and become ornaments negates them from being powerful and leaves them, as Merzaban says, to “the will of the observer”.
Lutfi’s piece is so small it could be missed, which is partly the point, explains Merzaban. “It is on paper, it is very fragile and in this context its message is ominous.”
Back across the hallway, in the long room to the right, are seven Chinese-style porcelain vases that each portray a battle from the Lebanese civil war and a 2.7-metre-long woollen carpet that merges the forgotten story of the Lebanese Rocket Society with that of the Armenian genocide.
“The pieces in this room deal with the power of history and how it is presented,” says Merzaban. The carpet piece by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige depicts the commemorative stamp of the rocket society that was once famous but has since disappeared from the collective memory. The vases, by the Lebanese artist Raed Yassin, were created after he researched the civil war, produced a set of drawings and took them to China to be interpreted and placed onto the porcelain.
“By creating a mass-produced object, he is entombing the war and trying to dissolve the control it has over people,” says Merzaban. “It is almost like the war is perpetual but it is encased in the vase – perhaps now it can be left to history.”
This piece was borrowed for the exhibition from the Abraaj Group Art Prize Collection and is one of several loaned pieces in the show. Merzaban took about half from Barjeel and the rest from Abraaj, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Musée National de l’Histoire et Des Cultures de l’Immigration in Paris, as well as from the collections of private individuals and artists.
“I chose artists who work with new media and in different contexts,” she explains. “This is not a survey exhibition and these artists don’t fall into clichés. I am introducing them as intellectual, conceptual artists and while most pieces are questioning events happening in the region, they are also globally relevant.”
Boon Hui, the director of the Singapore Art Museum, says that one of the reasons he was interested in hosting the exhibition was that it would help visitors "gain a better understanding of the complex histories of the Arab world" particularly because many of the artists are living in diaspora.
In the upper galleries of the museum, a three-channel video from the Helsinki-based Iraqi artist Adel Abidin is an example of this. Here, three female characters who represent western pop singers are performing songs in an Iraqi dialect, which were commissioned by Saddam Hussein’s government as propaganda. Engaging and compelling, the videos question the power of messages in both the West and the East because, in a state of euphoria and lulled by what seems to be a catchy melody, you could easily accept words that you might otherwise not.
“The exhibition will inspire visitors to view the Arab art world with a different lens and challenge the stereotypes of what it means to be an Arab artist,” says Hui, who also explains that there are many parallels between the concerns of artists from the Arab world and those from Singapore and South East Asia.
“Both are burgeoning regions that are an indelible part of the global art scene,” he says. “Yet one of the perennial challenges of artists from cultures outside the Euro-American art historical tradition is the burden of geography and its perceived ties to artistic practice. The exhibition showcases how issues of identity and representation are recurrent concerns that face contemporary Arab artists, just as they do contemporary South East Asian artists.”
Terms & Conditions runs from Friday until September 8 at the Singapore Art Museum. For details, visit www.singaporeartmuseum.sg
A closer look at some highlights of the show
Mona Hatoum: Plotting Table
In this piece, Hatoum revisits her interest in cartography. Presented in a dark room, the ominous green glow from the UV lights within the table captures the global whisperings of subverted power. A plotting table is a place to strategise an attack and so this piece alludes to a covert military operation on a global scale.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: The Lebanese Rocket Society – A Carpet
Founded in a Beirut university in the 1960s, the Lebanese Rocket Society was Lebanon’s contribution to the space race. It became famous and joined the regional march of Arab nationalism at the time. The army gave the society launch pads and the president requested a meeting. This piece explores the fact it has been forgotten and its memory perhaps replaced with the real rockets of later wars.
Raafat Ishak: Nominations for the New Presidency of the New Egypt
This Egyptian artist moved to Melbourne as a teenager and rarely returns. His work deals with inaccessibility and identity and for this fictitious manifesto he writes transliterated English in the Arabic text. It is an ephemeral piece that was made after the fall of the Mubarak regime and finds roots in academia as well as political statements.
Sharif Waked: To Be Continued …
Dressed as a suicide bomber, the character in this single-channel video appears to be reading his last rites but is in fact reciting from 1001 Arabian Nights. It is perhaps one of the less subtle pieces in the show, but obviously and forcibly questions the viewer to reconsider stereotypes.
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