Disorientation II: The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities

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Hala Elkoussy, On red nails, palm trees and other icons — Al Archief (Take 2), 2009. Photo by Plamen Galabov. Courtesy Sharjah Biennial

Abu Dhabi
Disorientation II: The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities
Manarat Al Saadiyat, Saadiyat Island
November 22, 2009–February 20, 2010

There wasn’t much to see along the brand new ten-lane highway that extends from Abu Dhabi onto Saadiyat Island. Cruising through the desert at 160 kmh, we passed under fragments of construction that looked like triumphal arches straddling the highway — overpasses-to-be, the ramps and roads that will connect to them still unconstructed. Clumps of mangroves dotted a landscape that is broken up by giant billboards of… mangroves.

After passing a handful of construction sites, more massive billboards with slick renderings of happy golfers, and lots and lots of sand, we arrived at the only complete building on the 27-square-meter Island of Happiness to find a curious thing: a challenging, engaged, and not-necessarily beautiful exhibition. ‘Disorientation II: The Rise and Fall of Arab Cities,’ curated by Jack Persekian, was a collection of work that examined how the Arab world’s recent history of struggle, violence, and suffering is inscribed onto its cities. It was the sequel to 'DisORIENTation,’ which, also curated by Persekian, was held at the House of World Cultures in 2003. The opening of 'Disorientation II,’ a peripheral event during Abu Dhabi Art, marked the inaugural show at the temporary exhibition space Manarat Al Saadiyat and was a welcome departure from the commercial spirit of the art fair.

In his candid catalog essay, Persekian attempted to untangle the exhibition. He explained that one of his central curatorial conceits was to break the exhibition in two, contrasting the warm, interior spaces and personal narratives inscribed in Hala Elkoussy’s and Ali Jabri’s work with pieces by Mona Hatoum, Wael Shawky, Diana Al-Hadid, and eleven other artists who tend to dwell on the exteriorized dystopia of alienation, boundaries, and powerlessness.

Elkoussy’s On Red Nails, Palm Trees and Other Icons — Al-Archief (Take 2) (2009), was a rich homage to Cairo and its collective memory. Assembled from hundreds of the artist’s photographs and found images arranged in an intimate room, the freestanding construction came complete with chairs and a carpet, dimly lit by a chandelier. Portraits of young boys in uniforms, snapshots, photos of buildings and flora and fauna, video of daily life in Cairo, and much more was all hung salon style, ostensibly in the manner of many Cairene living rooms. The work presented a distinct locality through a fastidiously recreated visual history. Jabri’s sketchbooks, drawings, and collages, on the other hand, represented a history rediscovered. Part of a collection dating back to when Jabri first moved to Cairo in 1977, the playful, intimate, and even romantic work was uncovered after his death in 2002.

Persekian aligned these two particular artists with Nasser-era pan-Arab unity, then contrasted that moment of vaulted idealism with what he called “the helpless, unforgiving situation of loss and conflict experienced in the Arab world today.” Throughout the rest of the exhibition, this bleak take on our contemporary condition was read through its traces left on the city. Hrair Sarkissian’s series of photographs, for example, presented a visually interesting collection of healthy-looking yet strangely empty urban spaces in Syria that were, in fact, loaded sites of past violence, as only, eerily, revealed by the title, Execution Squares (2008). The three-dimensional photo collage Qalandia 2047 (2006) by Wafa Hourani similarly presented an animated quarter of Palestine that seemed alive and playful despite being cut off and contained by a checkpoint and a wall.

Two works by Marwan Rechmaoui each had a quiet power that conveyed the curious state of Beirut. Beirut Caoutchouc (2004) was a large three-dimensional rubber map of the entire city. The deep black mat was cut into sixty pieces that corresponded to the sixty municipalities of the city — an understated attempt to raise questions about the logic of this division. A Monument for the Living (2001) was an equally subtle and even more striking piece. Appearing at first to be a minimalist sculpture, upon closer inspection it revealed itself to be a scale model of an unfinished building whose exterior was cracked and pitted. The building was intended to be a commercial high-rise but was left unfinished during Lebanon’s period of civil war. It became a sniper’s nest and makeshift prison because its location and hundreds of unobstructed windows made it strategic. It still stands in Beirut, too damaged to be completed but too tightly woven into the urban fabric to be safely demolished. The object in the gallery was itself a monument to the circumstantial memorial of the original.

Kader Attia’s stark images of huge piles of large concrete blocks also evoked minimalist sculpture. The stripped-down and essential photographs in the series Rochers Carrés (2008) were taken by the sea in Algeria. The blocks dominated their frames below a clear blue sky, often with a sliver of ocean evident behind the mounds of piled rubble. Young men loitered or fished in groups or alone. The breakwater is the rough fringe of the city, the last edge of Algeria before the Mediterranean stretches across to Europe. The images depicted a marginal community whose gaze is oriented away from the city, out to the sea, and beyond.

As a curator, Persekian asked us to think about how Arab cities have been shaped by various wars, traumas, massacres, displacements, and forced delineations. He mined the work for its anger and positioned the city itself as a subject as much as its inhabitants and Arab identity in general. Yet the show begged the following questions: What was at stake in Abu Dhabi? Why were there no artists from the Arab cities of the UAE, which are so famously and conspicuously in flux? Was it an intentional irony that he staged such a show, about senseless assaults on urbanism, on the brand-new Island of Happiness, a tabula rasa, planned, utopian cultural community?

In the end, the show would have been stronger if it had taken its host country and context as an additional topic of exploration. Although untouched by war, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah are certainly not without their own urban issues to excavate and hold up to the light. As ever, discussion and debate is urgently needed so that we may initiate a dialogue about the next phase of Arab urbanism — as envisioned by the UAE.