Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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Porter Presents Middle Eastern Art and its Stories

November 1, 2010

“I’m always looking for art that has particular stories to tell,” said Venetia Porter in a recent talk at the Institute. As Curator of Islamic and Middle Eastern Art at the British Museum, Porter’s job is to comb galleries and showcases for works that tell stories about the history, culture, and contemporary conflicts of the modern Middle East.

Porter’s talk, "Narratives from the Middle East: The Contemporary Art Collection of the British Museum," charted a handful of continuities in the art of this vast region. Though incredibly diverse, contemporary Middle Eastern paintings share a common global character, Porter said. Artists from Iraq to Morocco explore the interactions between Middle Eastern and Western influences. The works attempt to define regional specificity in an increasingly interconnected world, she said.

The use of Arabic script is emblematic of this trend. Traditionally, the Koran forbids the visual representation of bodies and figures. Though contemporary artists are given some leniency on this rule, several artists have transformed the ancient art form of calligraphy into a powerful means of self-expression. For instance, the Chinese artist Haji Noor Deen fuses Chinese and Islamic art forms through his renowned calligraphies, each of which he paints in a single breath.

Still other artists use calligraphy to engage political issues. In a series of photographs, Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi portrays women in veils covered in Arabic script, to show how “text is written on their bodies and clothes. … and their lives are circumscribed by the interests of others,” Porter said. Another artist writes in beautiful calligraphy the violent terms he hears on the radio.

Porter also showcased Iranian art whose links to religious tradition have led to the label “spiritual pop art.” However, Porter’s overview made clear that Iranian artists draw on a wide range of interests, from politics to sports. One recurring figure is the wrestler. The national athlete-hero Takhti appears in numerous paintings, his photo embedded in collages of overlapping artistic images.

Given the diversity of such works, are we justified in using the sweeping label, “Middle Eastern art?” Porter asked, raising questions about the ethics of labeling and categorizing art.

Questions of subjectivity in the curatorial process are equally problematic, Porter said. Despite the growing “trendiness” of Middle Eastern art, little scholarship has been performed on the subject. Without an established canon of Middle Eastern art as a point of comparison, Porter often struggles to determine what is “good art.”

“Sometimes you have to take a risk,” she said.

Such risks have brought exhibitions of striking diversity to the British Museum, including one exhibition presenting a “complex and fragmented” picture of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Researchers have yet to fully explore what makes Middle Eastern art distinctive, and how it intersects with other cultural expressions of globalization. However, it cannot be disputed that “works like this are documents of their time,” Porter said.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ‘11