Between Heaven & Hell: Contemporary Art from the Middle Eastern Diaspora

Neery Melkonian

Political instability, the hardships of economic survival, civil wars, religious intolerance and continued struggles for self determination in the Middle East have led to migrations to the Western world in unprecedented numbers. These massive movements across frontiers have resulted in the proliferation of diasporas with their corresponding visual cultures, yet to this day no substantial effort has been made to make this topic an integral part of current cultural debates. In the area of the visual arts alone one can find artists from the Middle East who currently reside in Europe, Africa, Latin America, the United States, Canada and Australia. Among such artists are Mona Hatoum, Gadi Gofbarg, Ghada Amer, Jamelie Hassan, Canan Tolon, Y.Z. Kami, Mitra Tabrizian, Sarkis, Jayce Salloum, Houria Niati, Shirin Neshat, Mohamed El Baz, Michal Rovner, Zaha Hadid, Liliane Karnouk, Ara Madzounian, Yasmina Bouziane, Peggy Ahwesh, Chohrez Feyzdjou, Jalal Toufic, Walid Ra'ad, Seta Manoukian, and Shirazeh Houshiary. These artists, each with a particular language of expression, transform their multiple diasporic predicaments into "fertile sites" where creativity and imagination merge to cultivate a transnational dialogue. As Edward Said reminds us in his essayReflections on Exile, "But if true exile is a condition of terminal loss, why has it been transformed so easily into a potent, even enriching, motif of modern culture? ... Modern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, emigres, refugees."

The artists mentioned above draw upon their hybrid cultural backgrounds and experiences of multiple displacement in ways that transcend ideological limitations, addressing broader global concerns including oppression, nationalism, subjugation, torture, surveillance, mythology, history, identity, memory, mysticism, the blurry line between construction and destruction, as well as the problematics of modernism and post-modernism through their individual poetics of survival.

In his introduction to Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha says, "It is the trope of our times to locate the question of culture in the realm of the beyond." The author describes this as an intervening space where one is part of "a revisionary time, a return to the present to redescribe our cultural contemporaneity; to reinscribe our human, historic commonality; to touch the future on its hither side."

Even though the works of many contemporary Middle Eastern diaspora artists articulate such interventions there is a tendency within current curatorial practices to contextualize them within prevailing paradigms of cultural discourse, for instance, the placing of Mona Hatoum's Light Sentence in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition "Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties." Such integrationist approaches not only fail to unveil the complex dynamics that shape our knowledge of the "Middle East" as a geo-political construct but, also, they obscure our understanding of its diaspora. In other words, the accent, even the dialect that constitutes Mona Hatoum's work is denied translation this time by its inclusion within the rubric of "Minimalism" and the homogenizing rhetoric of the "International Style." Again, Said reminds us "...a life of exile moves according to a different calendar, ..." and is led "outside habitual order. It is nomadic, decentered, contrapuntal; but no sooner one gets accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew." Such characteristics that define diasporic space and time, can be found in deconstructivist architect Zaha Hadid's designs.

Since the topic at hand does not neatly fit within the prevailing South/North or East/West axis of cultural debates and trafficking, an attempt to articulate contemporary Middle Eastern diasporic aesthetics necessarily goes beyond the binary narratives of margin versus mainstream, and locates visual culture within those "in-between" places where aesthetic and curatorial precedents are re-invented to interpret the present.

Due to deterritorialization (and reterritorialization) brought about by large scale population movements, combined with recent developments in the fields of communication and transportation, the Middle East is one region in the world which is undergoing major transformation with significant global ramifications. If societies are to survive into the next century on a more constructive note, it is imperative that we begin to understand how these changes are affecting cultural cartographies and artistic production. Since this article proposes that the present day Middle Eastern artist is often diasporicCthat is to say that their presence is at odds with essentialist versus assimalationist cultural paradigmsCa series of questions might help the articulation of less simplistic readings of their work. For example, how does the Middle Eastern diasporic artist operate with memory, and belonging versus not-belonging? What kind of hybrid and conflicting identities are mitigated through their art? When does the tension between the global and the local reconcile? How are we to read the absence of the overtly political in specific works? Is the absence due to withdrawal or delay? Is it possible that these ambiguities carry different languages that require "new" translations? What could these texts tell us about the current transnational moment and globalization?

Historically, the term diaspora has been synonymous with the plight of the Jewish people who, for millennia, were persecuted, tolerated or welcomed by empires and nation-states. More recently new polities such as African and Asian Americans have entered the semantic domain of diaspora. Yet the identities and the arts of thousands of Middle Easterners, who during the past several decades have had to relocate to various parts of the world, remain largely unrecognized or misunderstood. Such exclusions can partly be attributed to the "immigrant experience" or the fragmentation lived by many Middle Easterners as a result of displacement. Factors such as reductivist perceptions of multi-culturalism, as well as overt and covert discrimination which Middle Easterners experience throughout Europe and the United States, have contributed to marginalization and the silencing of their voices. As Robert Kaplan points out in his probing article There Is No Middle East, "...if we knew a little more about Jalal ed-Din Rumi, the 13th-century Turkic founder of the tariqat that was associated with the whirling dervishes, Islam might not seem incompatible with democracy, and Islamic fundamentalism might not seem so monolithic and threatening. Rumi dismissed "immature fanatics" who scorn music and poetry. He cautioned that a beard or a mustache on a cleric is no sign of wisdom. Rumi favored the individual over the crowd and consistently spoke against tyranny. Rumi's legacy is more applicable to democratizing tendencies in the Muslim world than are figures of the Arab and Iranian religious pantheons with whom the West is more familiar."

One can cite countless examples beginning with Disney cartoons and Hollywood movies to advertising campaigns which dehumanize, demonize or victimize the image of the Middle Easterner through stereotypical representations. In her Hybrid State Films catalogue essay Coco Fusco explains, "The artists and the people in their films are not only caught between worlds Cthey also find themselves in a mire of media about themselves and their cultures that they work off and against. It is no coincidence that the children of the Civil Rights movement, the television era and the golden age of activist media should demonstrate a strong awareness of how one's sense of identity and place is informed and even constructed by images propagated by forces beyond their control."

In this new age of migration, transnational or diasporan communities are sometimes the "paradigmatic others" of nation-states, at other times they are an ally or lobby. This rapidly growing phenomena of transnationalism (which include traverse of capital, technology, mass media and artistic production) complicate the meanings of multi-culturalism and contest conventional definitions of nations and diaspora. For instance, by placing immigrants in limbo between settlers and visitors, transnationalism challenges the concepts of citizenship and of nationhood itself. When asked if he writes for Chile, exiled filmaker and cultural critic Ariel Dorfman responds, "In some way I am always writing for that imagined community of my fellow countrymen. I'm always asking questions about how the nation can be healed, retold, or modified C how it can be exploredC as if this nation were incomplete until writers had found the way of best imagining it, of really challenging it with their literature. That never disappears entirely. At the same time, I'm constantly trying to go beyond the provincial interest of that can write about your land by exploring other places. This grows from the tension between what we could call the cosmopolitan and the local, the regional and the universal."

Another major area of difference between traditional and contemporary diaspora is that the latter lacks a position of comfort, certitude and settlement. The diasporic identity today is at once partial and plural. Cut off from place, language and social conventions, it straddles three or more cultures. However ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it offers a fertile territory for artists to occupy. "It is in the emergence of the interstices Cthe overlap and displacement of domains and differencesCthat the inter-subjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed 'in-between,' or in excess of, the sum of the 'parts' of difference...?" asks Bhabha.

Caught in this strange middle ground (thus the title of this text), trapped between belief and disbelief, contemporary diasporic aesthetics deny us the comfort of settled "truths." " son is critical that I keep lying to people...," reveals the Iranian film maker Abbas Kiarostami. "In cinema, by fabricating lies we may never reach the fundamental truth, but we will always be on our way to it. We can never get close to the truth except through lying."

The diasporan artist journeys across the frontiers of (art) history with doubt, distrusting all who claim to possess absolute forms of knowledge, and suspecting total explanations, or systems of thought which purport to be complete. Many diasporan artists cannot come to terms with the effects of repeated displacement, remaining in denial that a return to original home, language and culture is structurally impossible. "How many people today live in a language that is not their own?" asks Akram Zaatari. "Or no longer, or not yet, even know their own and know poorly the major language that they are forced to serve? This is the problem of immigrants, and especially of their children, the problem of minorities, the problem of a minor literature, but also a problem for all of us: how to tear a minor literature away from its own language, allowing it to challenge the language and making it follow a sober revolutionary path? How to become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one's own language?"

Throughout history the predicament of dislocation has been common to most immigrants. What distinguishes transnationalism from previous internationalist movements in the arts is that it challenges the alleged hegemony and homogeneity of an "International Style" while transporting the notion of the "ethnic" beyond descriptions of cultural diversity. As Homi Bhabha states, "...if the interest in postmodernism is limited to a celebration of the fragmentation of the 'grand narratives' of postenlightenment rationalism then, for all its intellectual excitement, it remains a profoundly parochial enterprise."

Many diasporan artists escape their deep sense of loss through nostalgia and nativist ideologies which often perpetuate ghettoization of meaning within the broader contemporary societies they live in. Bhabha continues, "The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with 'newness' that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent 'in-between' space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The 'past-present' becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia, of living."

But others, including those artists mentioned previously, are able to transform that uncomfortable middle ground of displacement by resorting to their imagination, where memory contests verifiable facts and "real" history becomes just another ideological fantasy. Consequently, the diasporan artist learns that reality is an artifact, in that it does not exist until it is made and like any other artifact it can be made well or badly, and it can also, of course, be unmade.

This essay was first delivered as a paper at the International Art Critics Association Conference in Sweden and has since appeared in the anthology Strategies For Survival--Now! A Global Perspective on Ethnicity, Body and Breakdown of Artistic Systems, edited by Christian Chambert.

This article appeared in Vol. 3, No. 19, June 1997.

Copyright © 1997 by Al Jadid

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