“ I want people to see the artists not only as women from the Arab world, but as women who live in a global world.”
Set in the basement beneath the Rich Mix Studios, It’s About Time exhibits five women artists, all originating from the Arab world and now living in Britain. The exhibition’s premier came as part of Arab Women Artists Now, a one day festival that offers a platform to the artistic excellence of an increasing active, increasingly present subsection of British society.
The works on display are diverse, both in terms of subject matter and medium. The first to greet the viewer is a small red screen-print of graffiti daubed by women in the notorious Khiam prison in Lebanon. It sits along from a brazen clash of greens and red, an abstract take on the Arabic symbol for love.
The quality of the exhibition’s works is overt and as much as its cultural foundation is on-topic enough to draw in on-the-fencers, It’s About Time actively attempts to move itself away from its weighty labels. And their potential to obscure its artistic merit.
Wander down into the spacious, white washed Lower Gallery and you will find nine pieces of work. Three are labelled and six not. There is no literature explaining the artistic origins of the pieces and little can be gleamed from the title. The thinking behind this context-less presentation, according to Zina Papageorgiou, the curator, stems from both the intended viewing experience and conceptual foundation of the exhibition.
I didn’t want to do another exhibition on Arab, female art, Zina explains as she moves across the gallery. Sometimes context is helpful when viewing art. It can colour the artwork and allow an understanding deeper than the aesthetic presentation. I think that when it comes to an exhibition with such heavy, thematic underpinning however, the context can distract from the intentions of the artist as an individual.
One of the exhibition’s individuals is Malika Squalli. Malika is an Austrian-Moroccan who has been travelling the world finding the people and locations that capture her thematic focus. A sense of questioned identity is constantly present in Malika’s washed out, grey photography. A women jumps to catch a yellow balloon, stands beneath a wandering cloud or behind the lens, looking out on a coolly brown, hilly tundra. In each the subject is either partially obscured, the result of Photoshop manipulation, or absent.
The sense of displacement present in this work is manifest in Malika, as an emigrant turned perpetual traveller, and the exhibition in general. Walking further round the gallery and this sense of displacement comes forward in a refrain of contrasts; the crisp, geometrically displayed calligraphy of Dia Batal perched next to Ina Halabi’s multi-media exploration into the internal politics of the Druze Community; Malika’s gentle photography alongside Saadeh George’s brutal painted work. It is a testament to the deft touch of Zina that the pieces operate at once individually, standing on their own as manifestations of their artist’s identity and together, congruent parts of the show’s broader cultural label.
There is a complicated sense of identity present with these artists, Zina says, herself a Greek woman working between The Palestine Conservatoire and Britain. I want people to see the artists not only as women from the Arab world, but as women who live in a global world. Sometimes they don’t want to comment on their ethnicity. I don’t think the “us and them” dynamic is applicable anymore.
There is an underlying awareness of the cultural commonality of the pieces that comes across through the Arabic text and a shared middle-Eastern focus. But rather than this emerging as the prevailing thrust of the exhibition, through its universal themes of love, displacement and loss, It’s About Time successfully manages to distance itself from a cumbersome cultural binary able to diminish some truly excellent work.
It’s About Time is part of the Arab Women Artists Now festival organised by Arts Canteen: a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting emerging artists from the Arab world.
7th – 29th March 2015 | Rich Mix Lower Gallery