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Book Review: Arabicity Edited by Juliet Cestar & Rose Issa

A new book from Saqi Books, Arabicity, provides North American readers with an introduction to the relatively unknown world of contemporary Arab art. Edited by curators Juliet Cestar and Rose Issa, the book covers everything from installations to photography and works by artists from around the Arab world. From Saudi Arabia to Lebanon, Palestine, Jordon and stops in between we see familiar forms of expression presenting scenes unfamiliar to our eyes.

The first 30 pages of the book are dedicated to four essays on art in the Arab world and the themes that dominate for the modern artist. The titles of each of these articles are in some ways as equally telling as the art they talk about: “Art: A Weapon of Mass Destruction”, Rose Issa, “Cultural Achievements Vs Arab Regimes’ Failures” Georges Corm, “The Wanderland of the Artist Citizen” Michket Krifa and “A Tragic Destiny?” Etel Adnan. 

Provocative and reflective the four essays provide the newcomer to modern Arab art a solid context within which to place the works contained in Arabicity. While many contemporary artists have the luxury of working from internal sources, years of turmoil make that something which is next to impossible for those working in the Middle East. 

In the 1950s the American author William Faulkner said American art was being created under the shadow of the nuclear bomb. In the Arab world it could be said art is being created during a constant state of unrest, war and displacement. Whether it’s the struggle for Palestinian equality, dealing with authoritarian rulers, religious fanaticism, or searching for identity amidst an ever changing world, each of the works in Arabicity reflect something of the turmoil most of the artists are either living through or have experienced.

It probably won’t come as a surprise that some of the more compelling and intriguing images in the book are by artists from communities and countries hardest hit by conflict and strife. Palestinian photographer Raeda Saadeh’s pieces depicting her as either fairy tale characters in modern day settings – Little Red Riding Hood in the financial district of Tel-Aviv – or her more politically overt pictures – an angel with her wing caught in the wall dividing Palestine from other parts of Israel – are both funny and poignant. 

While the former serve to highlight the alienation she feels from the day business of the state and her disassociation from the glass towers around her. With her one wing trapped in the wall – holding her in place and restricting her movement – the latter encapsulates Palestinian frustration with the current state of affairs in their homeland. They are trapped, with no freedom of movement.

While these are powerful pieces, perhaps the most heartrending images in Arabicity are those by Syrian artist Khaled Barakeh. He has taken a series of photographs depicting a person holding the body of a deceased loved one and edited the dead person from the photo. The blank white space emphasizes the absence – the hole left in lives by the violence and horror of the ongoing civil war in Syria.

For those in and around The Washington DC area there will be a chance to seem some of the work in the book. Arabicity|Ourouba the MEI Art Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, curated by Rose Issa, opens 14 Sep – 23 Nov at the MEI Art Gallery, 1763 N St. NW, Washington D.C. 20036

Arabicity, edited by Juliet Cestar and Rose Issa, is a wonderful collection of visual art which also serves as excellent introduction to the world of modern Arabic art. This book will be a worthwhile addition to anyone’s collection of contemporary visual arts.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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