Stepping off the fourth-floor elevator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a visitor’s first encounter is a row of fluorescent neon signs that create intricate Arabic script. These signs are the beginning of a new exhibit, “Islamic Art Now: Contemporary Art of the Middle East.” With LACMA’s impressive permanent collection of traditional Islamic art which is one of the most extensive collections in the United States now on an extended tour, the exhibit of modern Middle Eastern art has opened in its place.
The exhibit is an effort to connect the past and present. Much of the art reflects the history and tradition of the Middle East, but parts of it incorporate modern artistic mediums to depict social or political commentary. The neon signs at the entrance set the tone for the theme; the first sign reads “God is Alive, He Shall Not Die,” the other simply reads “Allah” in Arabic, and has mirrors positioned behind to make it reflect endlessly — to portray the infinity of God. The focus on religion is common in traditional Islamic art. The display simultaneously relies on the beauty of traditional Arabic calligraphy and uses modern technology as well as a contemporary medium to ellicit a response.
The exhibit is definitely varied — photography, paintings, digital art, two video clips and even an Iranian tombstone are included. Additionally, the art comes from Muslim, Christian and Jewish artists from every corner of the Arab world. This diversity gives the exhibit its necessary sense of depth and complexity, and mirrors how the realities of life differ vastly between Middle Eastern countries.
Despite the varied media and diversity of the artists, the exhibit feels cohesive, because many of the pieces focus on women and their roles in modern Middle Eastern life. An aspect of the Middle East that is condensed and over-simplified by the West is that the women are oppressed and restricted from participation in daily life. The exhibit projects an image of Middle Eastern women as strong, powerful and complex, not to be reduced to a single stereotype. Some are shrouded by a veil, screen or Arabic letters, and others are naked and staring straight into the camera. These women compel viewers to recognize the nuances of the issue and the difficulty in completely overcoming it.
Iranian artist Abbas Kowsari clearly condemns the double standards often applied to women in Iran in his pieces from the series “Police Women Academy,” taken at the graduation ceremony of the first women in the Iranian police force. These photographs mimic action movie posters, featuring women completely covered by the hijab, rappelling up a wall. The obvious irony of the photographs is that it evokes a sense of progress while simultaneously depicting a continuation of conservative tradition. The policewomen have now essentially been rendered useless, and represent, to Kowsari, how distant progress truly is.
Other artists tell a different story. Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj’s piece “Gang of Kesh Part 2” shows five women in conservative Muslim dress, but in bold fabrics of polka dots, leopard print, and camouflage. The women are confident and powerful, seated on motorcycles, their demeanors not unlike those of characters from Sons of Anarchy. They are clearly not meek or fearful. Another piece shows an Iranian girl wearing contemporary ’70s-era clothes and superimposed over an early 20th-century carpet. It harkens back to the liberal rule of the Shah of Iran, when women were not required to wear a veil and were allowed to be photographed; it was a time of liberalism and the championing of Western ideals. Portraits like this challenge the Western notion of an almost-fetishized Middle Eastern woman as powerless and weak, and show that the women of Iran were at one time very Westernized.
Some of the art is politically charged. A tombstone from Iran marks the death of a purposefully nameless political dissident; an untitled photo collage by Naghmeh Ghassemlou shows the fragmentation and devastation of the country following the Persian Gulf War. Most strikingly, a 1978 photograph shows graffiti on a wall in Iran that reads, “Down With Communism,” and is painted over with dripping red spray paint. The paint looks like blood and foreshadows the violent 1979 revolution that would depose the Shah and signal the institution of the Islamist Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini.
This exhibit emphasizes that though Middle Eastern issues are complex, they are not impossible to overcome. It shows us the vibrant and diverse culture in the Arab states, and that the region is not notable merely for its artistic history; its artistic present is equally relevant. “Islamic Art Now” was not a quiet, personal experience; strangers freely discussed and debated the neon signs, video clips and more. The diversity of the art reflects the diversity of the Middle East, and the discussions that took place echoed the display’s purpose: to promote discourse about the contemporary Middle East and the art it offers.