Hamed Ewais, Le Gardien de la Vie (The Protector of Life), 1967–68, oil on canvas, 52 × 39 1/2". From “The Short Century.”

Hamed Ewais, Le Gardien de la Vie (The Protector of Life), 1967–68, oil on canvas, 52 × 39 1/2". From “The Short Century.”

“The Short Century”

Sharjah Art Museum

Hamed Ewais, Le Gardien de la Vie (The Protector of Life), 1967–68, oil on canvas, 52 × 39 1/2". From “The Short Century.”

A major problem of twentieth-century art history in the Arab region has been one of visibility. Even the high points of Arab Modernism, the movement that flourished across the Maghreb and the Middle East from the 1950s to the ’70s, are often little seen. This owes as much to regionalism as to the fact that most twentieth-century Arab work was privately collected, and these collections either were dispersed by war, as was the case for many Iraqi collectors; remained on view only in private homes; or were bequeathed to museums with only a limited sense of social responsibility.

This is the background for a number of recent historicizations of Arab art, including the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation’s current show at the Sharjah Art Museum, “The Short Century.” It overlaps in mandate—and, in some cases, checklist—with the year-and-a-half-long show Barjeel has also been co-organizing at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, “Imperfect Chronology: Arab Art from the Modern to the Contemporary,” likewise drawn from its collection. Why two such similar shows at the same time? The answer might well lie in the publics they address.

Eric Hobsbawm famously argued for the notion of a “short twentieth century,” whose epoch-defining events occurred between 1914 and the end of the Cold War. “The Short Century,” curated by Suheyla Takesh and Karim Sultan, has a roughly similar chronological scope, beginning with the border-defining Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 and ending with the Gulf War in 1990–91, and explores how modern Arab art relates to Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism. It opens with a magnificent sculpture, Ahmed Abdel Wahab’s standing figure Key of Life, 1987/2014, which draws both from ancient Egyptian motifs and the sinuousness of modernist sculpture, though overall the show focuses mainly on painting, from early beaux-arts depictions of typical Arab landscapes, such as Youssef Kamel’s A View from the Citadel, painted in Egypt in 1921, to abstractions from the 1960s and ’70s, such as by Lebanese painter Saloua Raouda Choucair or, with a more Pop palette, Mohammed Melehi from Morocco. The galleries are organized thematically, with headings—among them “The Rural,” “The Urban,” “Nationalism,” and “The Lament/National Tragedy”—that seek to map out the full range of Arabic life and culture: from images of labor to depictions of martyrdom and grief, as in the haunting Femme et Mur (Women and Wall), ca. 1970s, by Mohammed Issiakhem. The momentous year of 1967, of the Arab defeat at the hands of the Israelis, is reflected in a number of works, notably Hamed Ewais’s Le Gardien de la Vie (The Protector of Life), 1967–68, which shows an Egyptian fighter standing sentry over scenes of Arab life. A cluster of abstract works explore “hurufiyya” (lettrism), which incorporated Arabic script into painting.

The effect is a story of Arab art that is both faithful and inaccurate. The final room in the exhibition, for example, looks at the Arabian Gulf, as in Abdullah Muharraqi’s painting of a man chained to the mast of a traditional wooden fishing boat (Eternal Torment, 1988). The works here, mostly from the ’80s, are mediocre, and none reflect the transition into Conceptualist idioms that was under way at the time in the Gulf, such as the Fluxus-derived experiments of Dubai-based Hassan Sharif. The influence of Conceptualism, in the Middle East as in the West, has proved stronger on contemporary Arab artists than have painterly representations. However, this kind of reverse-engineered narrative toward contemporary concerns is not the goal of the show, even though its chronologically determined parameters might suggest it; the aim of this exhibition is to suggest the appearance in art of the central concerns of the Arab short century.

Likewise, “The Short Century,” in its focus on an Arab context and an Arab story, delicately avoids mention of colonialism or Western influence. In many ways I would like this review to follow suit, as the West is not the foil against which Middle Eastern art must always be judged. However, it’s worth mentioning the well-known progenitor of the “Short Century” in an art context, Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition of African art postindependence: “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994,” staged in Munich, Berlin, Chicago, and New York in 2001–2002. Where this “Short Century” avoids the relationship between Arab art and the West, Enwezor’s took postcolonialism as its subject. More significantly, Enwezor’s show, which toured to art-world centers, brought artwork from across Africa to the visibility of art cognoscenti, much as Barjeel’s “Imperfect Chronology” has done at the Whitechapel Gallery. By contrast, the present exhibition aims—and perhaps equally politically—to bring Arab modernism to Arab eyes.

Melissa Gronlund