October 19, 2004

Crossing Borders

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The Handwerker Gallery of Ithaca College is currently hosting the traveling exhibition “Art Across Borders,” featuring contemporary artwork from Iraq and Palestine. For most of the audience, the sampling of Middle Eastern art will serve as an introduction to art from a region the Western world has often ignored.

What is more striking perhaps about this particular collection are the conditions under which the artworks were conceived, created and collected.

At the height of the still on-going U.S. war on terrorism and the subsequent Operation Iraqi Freedom, Meg Novak, an American artist, and Flo Razowsky, an American-born Jewish artist, embarked upon a mission in order to aid Iraqi and Palestinian citizens. In addition to the common charitable donations of medical supplies and children’s clothing, the group brought with them a great amount of art supplies donated by American artists.

Novak, executive director of the Babylon Art and Cultural Center, a non-profit, Minneapolis-based group that ties art and social activism together, visited and conducted interviews with artists, most of whom are dormant due to political coercion or simply lack of supplies. Despite limited mobility and strictly enforced curfews, the curators brought back a collection to be used on display in the first exhibit featuring Iraqi artists living in Iraq since before the Gulf War.

The exhibit offers a wide range of subject and media; gouache, oil and watercolor illustrate landscapes (surrealist and impressionistic), people and intricate, geometric graphic designs. Despite the political realities of the contemporary Middle East, the artworks do not necessarily reflect the particularly American concern with the area. Instead, the artists offer a distinctly humanist and individualistic vision of their society that resists the current Western political discourse; it provides a piece of Arabic culture and history, as well as gender, particularly the traditional representation of Muslim women.

One example is a piece by Noori Al- Rawi that gives us a markedly different picture of Baghdad — a name that has grown in American households to be synonymous with images of street explosions and military occupation. On the bottom right corner of the gouache piece is a dedication, written in Arabic and translated, “For my dear Meg, To remember Baghdad.” The piece is everything but the picture of Baghdad with which we are acquainted. The representation was a blend of warm tones, working strictly from an earthy palette. In contrast to the violently destructive image of news coverage, Al-Rawi gives an impression of harmony. Sky and land is meshed into one flat surface making no distinction between human construction and nature. There is no human presence, but the representation is not evacuated of human influence. A building is embedded smoothly into the landscape.

There is a powerful nationalistic sentiment in the ink drawings of Abdul Rahman Al-Mozayen, a former general in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (now the Palestinian Authority). His skillful illustrations convey a powerful nationalistic pride through the figure of a woman, Anat, the ancient goddess of the Canaanites, a symbol for the soul and strength of Palestine. The woman that appears in a series of drawings is motherly, curved, bent in a way that is congruous with the cyclical nature of the earth. Her body is representative of both culture and nature; the wheat that she gathers is imprinted on her dress along with Arabic lettering and scenes of the distraction of the city of Jenin.

In the same exhibit, peace and harmony is challenged. The nature in full accordance with the female body is in stark contrast with Iraqi artist Mu’Ayad Muhsin’s representation of the Islamic woman. She sits firmly on a chair, feet on the floor, positioned as if they were ready to stand and walk off. The Muhsin woman is dressed in traditional black garb, wearing a head wrap that exposes her face. There is defiance in the stern and stiff lips, but safety in the unchallenging eyes that look distantly past the viewer. Hands are regimented on her lap, either in closed fists or disciplined on top of another.

I was once more reminded of how grossly essentialized Iraq and its neighboring regions are in the news media when I drew near an unmistakably Christian piece from Majd Shaliar of Kurdistan. The image of Christ’s crucifixion is smeared on the surface, the Savior’s head tilted to one side, lids closed yet alive enough that one may expect tears to flow any second. The figure looms largely over the landscape — a line for the horizon and a cross. The ubiquitous symbol of Catholicism — the crucifix — populates the surface, re-writing itself over and over again on the plane, even on the body of Christ itself, perhaps suggesting the symbol’s overwhelming dominance over cultural experience.

Indeed, haven’t stock photos of blown-up buses and chaotic streets stood in place of people? Thankfully, “Art Across Borders” offers an alternative to those images.

Art Across Borders: Contemporary Art form Iraq and Palestine will run through November 7, 2004 in the Handwerker Gallery. In addition, Ithaca College’s Department of Politics faculty members Asma Barlas and Beth Harris will join artist and curator Meg Novak for a gallery talk on Thursday, October 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Archived article by Whine Del Rosario
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer