A series of events planned to introduce Arab art to a New York audience has become intertwined with growing international outrage over the gruesome killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey early this month.
The Arab Art and Education Initiative has been promoted as a yearlong program “connecting contemporary Arab culture with diverse audiences across the five boroughs of New York City.” It kicked off this month with events including artists’ presentations, open studios, lectures and exhibitions. Among them are an exhibition of Syrian refugee art and artifacts at the Brooklyn Museum titled Syria “Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart” that will run until mid-January.
The initiative planned to collaborate with as many New York organizations, including museums and academic and philanthropic institutions, as possible. Participating groups include the Museum of Modern Art, the Asia Society, the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
But many of those organizations have been reassessing how to go forward with the program, financed in part by the Saudi government, as allegations swirl about whether the kingdom’s rulers were complicit in the journalist’s disappearance and presumed killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, who resided in the United States and wrote for The Washington Post, had been a prominent critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Some of his children are U.S. citizens.
Most of the opening week’s events took place as planned, but several museums issued statements saying they would use their own money and not accept funds from the Saudi government or groups it supports. And one event—a talk by the Saudi artist and physician Ahmed Mater scheduled to take place at Columbia University—was canceled.
Mater is director of the Misk Art Institute, an arm of the Misk Foundation, which was set up by Prince Mohammed to foster the development Saudi arts, culture and science at home while also promoting a reformed image of the country abroad.
An internationally known artist who works with photography, painting, calligraphy, mixed media and video, and who focuses on issues pertaining to the cultural, intellectual and ecological challenges facing Saudi society, Mater had planned to participate in a conversation at Columbia with Avinoam Shalem, a professor of Islamic studies in the university’s art history department.
A spokesperson for Columbia told the New York news blog Gothamist that the university had decided to cancel the event with Mater, even though it had not received any Saudi money. The university said in a written statement that it would “seek to find another time in the near future that is more conducive to the academic dialogue on campus that is the purpose of the lecture.”
Despite the promise to reschedule the talk, Columbia’s decision came in for sharp criticism from arts journalists and practitioners.
Arsalan Mohamed, a former editor of the Dubai-based Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, called it “massively moronic” in a social media post, and others argued that canceling such talks allows for the silencing of criticism by those exploring societal and political issues in their art.
Yet arguably, the strongest concerns expressed regarding the Saudi Arabian government came from museum directors.
Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, issued a statement saying her institution would not accept Saudi funds “in light of recent events and in harmony with the international community’s concerns.” She added: “The Brooklyn Museum continues to believe strongly in the value of culture to create bridges and build a more connected, civic, and empathetic global community, and we are committed to our partnership of the Arab Art and Education Initiative.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art issued a similar statement before a private invitation-only seminar about curating modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in the West. The Met’s president, Daniel Weiss, wrote in an email to attendees that “in light of recent developments we have decided that the museum will itself fund this event.”
Some participants in the initiative lamented the cancellation of Mater’s talk at Columbia as a lost opportunity.
“This is exactly the reason why we put together these events and support Arab artists,” said Razan Al Sarraf, a Kuwaiti curator and visual artist currently based in New York. “These efforts are about creating opportunities for artists to express ideas and how they view matters about the world.”
She said that two of Khashoggi’s children, Abdulla and Razan, were completing artist residencies in New York as part of the Arab Art and Education Initiative and were meant to show works during a Young Arab Artists Exhibition at the gallery ArtX. “Sadly, the events struck really close to home,” said Al Sarraf. When news broke out about their father’s death, she said, they left New York to ensure their security.
Al Sarraf organized and curated the show at ArtX, which featured works by Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Iraqi artists. Most of the works had a street-art aesthetic. The show ran for nine days and included paintings, video and photography in the gallery, a former nightclub in the trendy Meatpacking District of Manhattan.
Many expatriate Arabs and guests attended the show’s opening, presenting a case for what can happen when Arab art is introduced to a new audience. Visitors walked through the ground floor and basement space to look at works that discussed various matters pertaining to Arab society today, such as questions of feminist expression in Kuwait, immigration and conflict in the Middle East, music trends in the Arab world, and the effect of postcolonialism on Arab states.
The ArtX show displayed how an art exhibition can inspire curiosity and learning about other cultures. Opening night ended with a party among the artworks on the third floor of the rented space and was set up as an Arabian-style setting called a majlis, a traditional sitting room with low cushions where people sit to socialize or conduct business. Revelries continued until 3 a.m., reported one participant.
Events open to the public were well attended. These included the opening of the “Syria Then and Now” show at the Brooklyn Museum, which featured a guided tour of the exhibition by its curator, Ayşin Yoltar-Yıldırım, and moving talks by participating artists Ginane Makki Bacho, Issam Kourbaj and Mohamad Hafez about how the current Syrian refugee crisis relates to them.
In addition, a talk and presentation by New York-based Palestinian artist Samia Halaby at the Guggenheim Museum highlighted her expansive career as an abstract artist and how her political beliefs inform her practice. (See a related article, “Samia Halaby: An Artist at Once Palestinian and Universal.”)
Despite the setbacks, the Arab Art and Education Initiative still has a series of events planned for the year, including educational outreach and collaborations such as a yearlong project that Mohamed Hafez, a Syrian-born artist who creates miniature replicas of war-torn buildings, will be working on with students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Judging by the success and interactions of the opening week’s events, this initiative can still have impact on the art world in New York and raise awareness and appreciation for Arab art and artists.